Category Archives: voice

More than Words

Jonathan L. Friedmann, Ph.D.

Communication is usually defined as the exchange of information or ideas. The expansiveness and nuance of modern languages is such that almost anything can be put into words. Vocabulary helps us make sense of the world and process our experiences in it. Contrastingly, nonverbal communication is very limited in range. While it takes many forms—from gestures and facial expressions to posture and speech patterns—it mainly operates on the level of feelings. Nonverbal cues typically do little more than reinforce or contradict what is being said (like saying “thank you” with a smile or “everything is fine” with a frown). Nevertheless, psychologists have long known that the wording of a message is far less important than how the words are expressed.

In 1968, UCLA professor Albert Mehrabian published an influential paper, “Communication Without Words,” which examined the relative effect of verbal and nonverbal communication. He found that the impact of speech is fifty-five percent facial, thirty-eight percent tone of voice, and only seven percent verbal. This comes pretty close to arguing that it doesn’t matter what we say, but how we say it. Of course, the formula applies less to purely factual statements, like giving directions or one’s stating name and address; but in ordinary conversation, nonverbal communication carries disproportionate weight.

While the 7%-38%-55% Rule might seem exaggerated, proof is readily found in our day-to-day lives. Just think of how sarcasm can flip the meaning of a phrase. Positive words are reversed with an eye roll or resentful tone. It is an entirely extra-linguistic trick, making it notoriously difficult to put into writing. Without vocal or facial indicators, “nice going” just means “nice going.”

The power of nonverbal communication is also felt in song. The musical content of a song is often thought of as additive—that is, as a vehicle for clarifying and transmitting lyrics. However, in many cases, the opposite is true: lyrics can simply be an excuse for making music. If spoken messages are thirty-eight percent voice tone, then song—a medium that accentuates the voice—is swayed even more by sound. Add to this the visible aspect of a live performance, and the importance of words dwindles further still.

There are many songs in which words have an exceedingly small impact. We all like songs with lyrics that, if merely spoken or read, would not interest us in the least. These come in six basic types, though there may be more: Songs with trite or sophomoric lyrics; Songs that make little sense; Songs with themes we do not condone; Songs with ideas we do not agree with; Songs in a foreign language; Songs about things with which we have no experience. In each case, words probably account for less than seven percent of our attraction.

To be sure, plenty of songs include thoughtful poetry. But they are not the majority. If, for instance, we were to comb the extensive Beatles catalogue, we would find that most of their lyrics are simplistic, some are nonsensical, and a small number are truly exquisite. These lopsided figures do not impact the band’s popularity, just as the words we say do not make or break how others feel about us. Communication is much more than words.

Visit Jonathan’s website to keep up on his latest endeavors, browse his book and article archives, and listen to sample compositions.

Feeling Voices

Jonathan L. Friedmann, Ph.D.

The emotional pull of music is its first, strongest and most universal effect. It is the primary reason for music’s inclusion in a staggering assortment of human activities, and the common denominator for listeners of all levels of education and expertise. If music were divested of its emotional attraction, it would soon fall out of usage. Yet, as widely attested as this observation is, it remains unclear precisely how emotions are musically aroused.

There has been no shortage of proposed explanations. From the moment people began thinking about music, the connection between emotion and sound has been a foremost area of interest. Some older ideas have survived the rigors of modern research and continue to hold sway. One such theory was introduced in the writings of Charles Darwin.

In The Expression of the Emotions in Man and Animals (1872), Darwin wrote, “when the voice is used under any strong emotion, it tends to assume, through the principle of association, a musical character.” Vocalization patterns change depending on the vocalizer’s emotional state. Gloominess is matched by slow and hesitant speech in the lower register. Cheerfulness is partnered with loud and rapid speech in the higher range. Anxiety has its counterpart in uneven spurts of trembling speech. We intuitively recognize underlying moods from the rhythms, timbres and contours present in the expression of these and other states.

Sometime in the distant and unrecorded past, these qualities migrated into the musical vocabulary. Gloomy music mimics the lethargic pace of a downhearted voice. Cheerful music replicates the bright tempo of excited elocution. Anxious music mimics the disjointed phrases of a troubled tongue. The sounds remind us of how we communicate during these states. We detect and respond to vocal patterns in the musical presentation.

Compelling though this analysis may be, it is not uncontested. Some detractors, like philosopher Stephen Davies, argue that music’s expressiveness is tied to its replication of physical gestures rather than an essential link to vocal tendencies. Others, like psychologist Vladimir Konečni, contend that music does not directly induce emotions, and that the apparent connection requires more conditioning than Darwin’s theory would suggest.

But empirical evidence has mounted since Darwin’s day. Researchers have conducted controlled experiments that demonstrate the resemblance between vocal tendencies and musical expression. The titles of several research papers indicate the growing attention: “Voice and Emotion” (1991); “Expression of Emotion in Voice and Music” (1995); “Communication of Emotions in Vocal Expression and Musical Performance” (2003); “Emotional Expression in Voice and Music” (2003).

The vocalization theory also resonates on an intuitive level. Once we are made aware of Darwin’s statement, it is hard to ignore the presence of vocal patterns in music evocative of various emotions. We realize how basic the connection is.

By itself, the proposition does not definitively or comprehensively solve the puzzle of why music stimulates emotional responses. It cannot account for all instances or why some musical selections are felt more strongly than others. But it is a valuable aid to our understanding.

Visit Jonathan’s website to keep up on his latest endeavors, browse his book and article archives, and listen to sample compositions.