Our voices communicate information far beyond what we say with our words. Like most animals, the sounds we produce have the potential to convey how healthy we are, what mood we’re in, even our general size. Some of these traits are important cues for potential mates, so much so that the sound of your voice can actually affect how good looking you appear to others. Which, really, brings up one darn good question: what makes a voice sound sexy?
To find out, a team spearheaded by University College London researcher Xi Yu created synthetic male and female voices and altered their pitch, vocal quality and formant spacing (an acoustics term related to the frequencies of sound), the last of which is related to body size. They also adjusted the voices to be normal (relaxed), breathy, or pressed (tense). Through several listening experiments, they asked participants of the opposite gender to say which voice was the most attractive and which sounded the friendliest or happiest.
The happiest-sounding voices were those with higher pitch, whether male or female, while the angriest were those with dense formants, indicating large body size. As for attractiveness, the men preferred a female voice that is high-pitched, breathy and had wide formant spacing, which indicates a small body size. The women, on the other hand, preferred a male voice with low pitch and dense formant spacing, indicative of larger size. But what really surprised the scientists is that women also preferred their male voices breathy. “The breathiness in the male voice attractiveness rating is intriguing,” explain the authors, “as it could be a way of neutralizing the aggressiveness associated with a large body size.”
The pattern in people is similar to what scientists have found in other animal species. Males tend to prefer higher-pitched female calls that indicate small stature, while females prefer larger-sounding, deep-pitched males. “The findings of the present study indicate that, despite the development of highly complex language capable of conveying fine subtleties in meaning, humans still use an encoding strategy similar to the one widely used by nonhuman animals for guaranteeing success in survival and reproduction.”
Of course, the study has limitations. The authors note that the synthetic voice were still far from human sounding (see audio files at the end), and would be interested to see if males and females agree on attractiveness within their own gender, or if the pattern holds for other cultures. I would take it a step further, and question whether straight men and women have different preferences than gay men or lesbians — do gay men’s preferences align more with straight women’s, for example?
Still, the study suggests that despite our complex language, we still use animalistic cues in voice to gather information about the speaker, including their looks. These results explain why previous studies have shown that women will raise the pitch of their voice when talking to men they find attractive, and why Barry White is so effective at setting the mood.
Citation: Xu Y., Lee A., Wu W.L., Liu X. & Birkholz P. (2013). Human Vocal Attractiveness as Signaled by Body Size Projection, PLoS ONE, 8 (4) e62397. DOI: 10.1371/journal.pone.0062397
Other example voices from the study:
Least Attractive Female:
Least Attractive Male:
Microphone image Copyright (c) 123RF Stock Photos