What is a voice? And don’t gender me.

Lost on you by LP:



The human voice has a special place in the desire and enjoyment of musicians and listeners. For me, there are voices, like the one you’ve just heard, that strike exactly the right note. That is to say, I feel deeply touched by this voice of Laura Pergolizzi, better known in the popular music world as L.P. Having a love for music might be a Freudian sublimation, but my emotional reaction to L.P.’s singing is probably closer to an auditory fetish. Not that I really care, because I’m not going to stop listening to this voice until its intoxicating effect has dissipated, and that won’t happen in a hurry.

I’m not the only one who derives pleasure from this song called Lost on You: more than 165 million views for this YouTube clip alone. And it does not take long to find comments about L.P.’s voice online. Here are some examples:

The bluesy artist’s unique vocal timbre, equally able to muster a powerful vibrato and a Cinderella-esque whistle, pulling from pop and Bob Dylan’s nasally delivery, struck a particular chord with “Lost on You,” a song about the dissolution of a relationship with her girlfriend. (1)

With alternately howling and forlorn rough-edged vocals delivering bracingly open lyrics, L.P. has invited comparisons to, Janis Joplin, Joan Jett, Gwen Stefani. (2)

Her insanely high and haunting vocals have been compared to Janice Joplin and Florence Welch … of Florence and the Machine. (3)

The tortured grit in L.P.’s voice on “Lost on You” is reminiscent of the gravelly Johnny Cash. (4)

It is worth noting that all of these comments, while trying to express the uniqueness of L.P.’s voice, resort to comparisons with other popular singers. This is not an accident but symptomatic of what I’m trying to explore in this short paper. Namely, the issue of sound colour, also known as tone colour and timbre. Most non-musicians are familiar with the musical categories or parameters of melody, harmony, and rhythm, but even trained musicians often have only a limited set of words available to describe the timbral quality of sound. Sure, as we just heard, there are adjectives such as gritty, nasal, and gravelly, and we talk about smooth vs grainy sounds, or dark vs bright sounds, but in the end, there remains a residue that cannot be fully captured by language. We can circumscribe the vocal sound of a singer, but this is nothing like hearing the actual voice. Hence, we resort to comparisons with equally unique voices. These comparisons do not diminish the distinctiveness of a given voice but rather confirm the reality of vocal singularities.

Vocal timbre is a complex category, and it has been pointed out that ‘the perception of musical timbre, for its part, intricate and poorly understood, must be related to discrete pitch perception, since it also involves a cognitive construction based in parts on blends of frequencies.’ (5) Oliver Sacks has the following to say about timbre:

The timbre of a sound is influenced by all sorts of factors, including the frequencies of harmonics or overtones and the onset, rise and decay of acoustic waveforms. The ability to maintain a sense of timbre constancy is a multileveled and extremely complex process in the auditory brain that may have some analogies with color constancy – indeed, the language of color is often applied to timbre, which is sometimes referred to as a “sound colour” or “tone color”. (6)

Daniel Levitin points out that timbre ‘is the most important and ecologically relevant feature of auditory events.’ He explains that ‘timbral discrimination is so acute in humans that most of us can recognise hundreds of different voices. We can even tell whether someone close to us – our mother, our spouse – is happy or sad, healthy or coming down with a cold, based on the timbre of that voice.’ (7)

Even more striking is the recent discovery that being able to distinguish between familiar and unfamiliar vocal sounds is something that already develops inside the womb. A two-country study conducted in 2013 supports ‘the hypothesis that language experienced in utero affects vowel perception’. The study concludes that ‘the ambient language to which foetuses are exposed in the womb starts to affect their perception of their native language at a phonetic level’ and that ‘this can be measured shortly after birth by differences in responding to familiar vs. unfamiliar sounds.’ (8)

And yet, even with all the existing neuroscience and the compelling research into the brain’s processing of auditory events, little is known about the neurological mechanisms responsible for voice recognition. Neuroscientists have begun to map out pitch recognition, but the mechanism by which musicians, and possibly some listeners, can discern musical intervals, that is, the distance between two pitches, is still unclear. (9) According to Levitin, ‘there is evidence that the brain responds to […] harmonic sounds with synchronous neural firings […] creating a neural basis for the coherence of these sounds’, (10) but given that the specific timbre of a human voice is made up of a whole spectrum of simultaneous sound waves that combine into a distinctive sound quality, it is easy to see how far away we are from explaining how the brain processes this complex set of sensory data.

So, if neuroscience cannot fully explain what musicians and many listeners already know, maybe a simple look at our everyday language has something to offer. We can say that L.P.’s voice has that special something, which makes her voice so desirable to her listeners. In German, the special something finds it literal translation in ‘das besondere Etwas’. And the French equivalent is the ‘je ne sais quoi’ – the ‘I don’t know what’, which more openly acknowledges our frequent inability to name what actually matters the most. The inability to name the special quality of something or someone desirable can be associated with Jacques Lacan’s objet a – the object cause of desire. (11) The objet a is the special quality of L.P.’s vocal timbre that causes me to desire her voice. I can look for words that can circumscribe the special quality of her voice, but these words have no hope of replacing the experience of listening. What remains elusive is the special something, the precious property contained in L.P.’s vocal timbre that causes me to find her voice desirable.

Continuing along psychoanalytical lines, it does not take long to arrive at questions about my mother’s voice or the voice of someone else close to me. At the risk of committing a Freudian negation: my mother’s voice is nothing like L.P.’s voice, nor I can’t think of anyone else who sounds exactly like L.P. In fact, I’m relieved that this is the case because, at some level, I resist losing the singularity of L.P.’s timbre. But even if I did find someone in my personal live sounding like L.P., this would still not explain the singer’s broader popularity.

I suspect that music’s widely accepted capacity of being expressive of emotion might have something to do with the appeal of L.P.’s ‘Lost on You’. Furthermore, some singers might have a greater ability to imbue their singing with emotional import than others. In any case, the uniqueness and complexity of vocal timbre plays a major part in adding to the expressive pallet of a singer. In fact, I doubt whether the song performed by another singer would have the same impact.

Beyond timbre, it might also be worth considering the persona and stage presence of L.P. Popular media has commented on her androgynous appearance and her sexual orientation makes her a cultural ambassador of the LGBTI community. Gender non-compliance in popular music resonates with L.P.’s appearance, and this places L.P. in a tradition that can be traced back to David Bowie’s Ziggy Stardust. Popular culture is generally welcoming of gender diversity and this is reflective of a wider trend to challenge the traditional gender binary. As any biologist can attest, the traditional binary is not even anchored in nature, that is, the idea of two sexes is simplistic because different sexually dimorphic traits do not always align within the same person and therefore biologists speak of a spectrum rather than a binary. (12)

The question of gender in the context of the human voice is complex because, as most of us would know, some women speak with low voices and some men with high voices. In music, too, high and low voices are not always associated with male or female. For example, a counter-tenor sings in the alto range and a female inuk throat-singer like Tanya Tagaq is able to produce incredibly low vocal sounds in the lowest part of the bass range. Pitch alone cannot be a marker of gender. Rather, pitch can be suggestive of gender and there is a statistical probability that a man has a lower voice than a woman, but pitch and gender are not immutably linked. Given that timbre is made up of multiple pitch frequencies, the issue of gender in relation to the sound colour of a human voice is even more intricate and would merit a PhD project in its own right.

To conclude, I’d like to come back once more to the experience of being touched by another person’s voice, which turns out be quite a literal touch. At first this might seem counter-intuitive as we tend to locate the familiar voice in the person that is producing the vocal sound. And yet, the other’s voice physically travels inside our body through our ears and it can even remain there. Daniel Levitin explains that familiar voices become part of our body at a neural level because our brains develop circuitry associated with the voices of others.’ (13) A familiar voice is hardwired into our brain. A desired voice becomes anatomically part of us. We embody the voices we love.

List of references

About thomasreiner

contemporary art music
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1 Response to What is a voice? And don’t gender me.

  1. Jezebel says:

    Very well said, there is no Comparison for LP, she is in a league of her own. That voice is mesmerising and so is everything else about her.

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