Am I Sexy Now? Vocal Cues To Body Size Sound Attractive

By Christie Wilcox | April 28, 2013 9:00 am

What does your voice say about you?

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 sexiest female and male synthetic voices

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:

Other example voices from the study:
Least Attractive Female:
Least Attractive Male:
Happiest Female:
Angriest Female:
Happiest Male:
Angriest Male:
Regular Voice:
Breathy Voice:
Pressed Voice:
Microphone image Copyright (c) 123RF Stock Photos

CATEGORIZED UNDER: Evolution, Mind & Brain, select, Top Posts
  • http://www.facebook.com/diana.issidorides Diana Issidorides

    Your first two samples of “The sexiest female and male synthetic voices” are both identical and male…

    • http://christiewilcox.com/ Christie Wilcox

      Oops! Should be fixed now.

  • Tom

    Maybe I’m just not imaginative enough, but to me, none of these voices have any sort of emotion or attractiveness associated with them, beyond “male” and “female”. They just sound like generic computer voices, and they’re not helped by the nonsense they’re babbling. “eye OH you you you.” If you’re worried about an actual sentence throwing off the results, say something in a foreign language.

    I’m not sure how their research subjects were able to give any answers of value.

    • Matt

      haha I OH youohyouhohy

  • paige

    hello my name is paige, i am 14, and i liked your article very much. i found it very informative, and well written out. i would also just like to say, that i look forward to this research as it progresses. so please keep up what you are doing! thank you!

  • Bob

    So all I have to do to attract the opposite sex with my voice is to sound synthetic and say “Eye OH you you you”?

  • CHC

    It would have been cool if real human voices were used

  • Duke

    I’ll bet Barry White never uttered the phrase:

    Eye OH you you you!

  • Matt

    What is meant by breathiness? Were there significant enough results in this, or simple studies from other samples that suggest that voice pitch etc are not entirely or largely subjective but somewhat ubiquitous by providing evolutionary cues?

    and how might preference for voices have evolved? Surely vocal communication would be negligible compared to physiological, behavioural and even chemical characteristics?

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About Christie Wilcox

Dr. Christie Wilcox is a science writer and postdoctoral scholar at the University of Hawaii. She is renowned in the science blogosphere for her delicate balance of contemporary science and scientific perspective seasoned with just the right amount of wit. Her award-winning posts have landed on the pages of major media outlets including The New York Times and Scientific American. To learn more about her life and work, check out her webpage or follow her on Twitter, Google+, or Facebook.

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