Hearing Voices

It’s the first day of classes for the spring semester. I am a graduate teaching assistant for a Disability Studies course, and my professor wants to introduce me to the rest of the students. Skillfully, he guides me to the front of the room, and I greet the class. I explain to them that, while he will be matching names to faces, I’ll be learning to recognize their voices. My professor turns to me and says, “Oh, are you good at that?”

Here, I am tempted to respond, “Not really, but I like to stick to the same method whether it works or not!” Instead, I decide to say, “Yes, I am good at it.”

My simple declaration is rewarded by a student in the front row who exclaims, “That’s amazing!”

I demur, but time does not permit me to explain why my ability to recognize voices isn’t really amazing. The human ear can recognize and distinguish a staggering number of voices. I think that my ability must seem amazing and other-worldly because the average sighted person prefers or prioritizes visual recognition.

With this particular class, I am surprised at how quickly I learn their names and voices. As a student, I don’t feel pressured to learn my classmates’ names, but, as a TA, I feel compelled to know them. I am anxious that I will be violating some kind of sacred teacher-student code if I can’t identify my students after they utter a few words. As I’m trying not to be so hard on myself, I also ask the students to say who they are when they speak up. I slowly start to pin down their vocal characteristics.

Here’s how I begin to work it out:

  • There are 3 guys in the class. Two have very distinct accents and one does not. One has a very Southern accent, one has a slight Spanish accent, and the third, whose speech is not so drastically shaped by a different accent, rarely speaks up.
  • There are two girls with the same name. One speaks up regularly and always sits just behind me. She has a strong accent, and her voice is low, with a cool, crisp edge.
  • A talkative and intelligent girl who sits on the right side of the room (if I am facing the front of the class) uses a lot of frontal resonance when she speaks. This means that you could pinpoint locations around her mouth, teeth, and cheeks that give her tone a bright, young sound.

Observations like these come to the forefront of my consciousness when I am learning new voices. After I’ve learned to recognize a voice, the classifying thoughts slip beyond my conscious awareness. I can still unearth them if I sit and think about what makes each voice unique.

If I replay the voices that I really enjoy, I notice a series of recurring characteristics. I love bright, sunny voices – people who greet you as if the greeting and your name are their favorite words. My Disability Studies professor and my friend Katie epitomize this characteristic. What particularly delights me about Katie’s voice is that its consistent sunniness contrasts drastically with how her voice sweeps into a lower register when she’s disgruntled.

Other voices appeal to me for their texture or timbre (tone color). Voices that sound thick, substantial, and lively are particularly enjoyable. When I hear them, I ask myself, How can such a big voice be so agile and expressive?

I always appreciate when people tell me who they are. Because a greeting is usually brief, only a handful of syllables, I may not recognize a voice right away. Sometimes, I need a few full sentences before I can accurately identify a person. When I converse regularly with someone, I learn to recognize his or her voice pretty quickly.

Other times, I only need a word or two, especially if the person greets me in a unique way. A woman in my chorus always sings my name so that I will know who she is. Another told me, “I am going to keep saying my name until you can recognize my voice,” a statement I greatly appreciated.

Unfortunately, there are still people who insist on saying, “Hey Emily, do you know who this is?” or “Can you recognize my voice?” Though they may not intend to test me or put me on the spot, these situations are frustrating. Once, a former classmate spent a few minutes quizzing me about her voice and refusing to tell me her name, until my friend Melissa broke in, saying, “Emily, don’t you find it annoying when people won’t tell you who they are?”

Now, when people ask me if I can recognize their voices, I feign delirium and say, “Jesus, is that you?”

Another common frustration occurs when people try to disguise their voices so that they can test my “amazing” skills. Unfailingly, each person who attempts this maneuver thinks that he or she is the first to think of it. People distort the pitch of their voices and say, “Do you know who this is?” In these situations, I don’t hold back. I usually respond, “I forget the name but it’s someone really annoying” or “Some inconsiderate person?” (My friend Crystal says I should swing my cane in a wide arc and shout, “No, you weirdo! Get away from me!”) When people disguise their voices so that they can be dazzled when I correctly guess their identity, I feel like a low-budget carnival attraction. Do they realize that their antics are thoroughly insulting?

I find it endearing when people announce who they are long after I have learned to recognize their voices. Occasionally, someone – a professor, classmate, colleague – will start a conversation with me and add their introduction as an afterthought: “It’s Dr. So-and-so, by the way.” These little attentions are endearing because they’re considerate. They show me that the person speaking can empathize with the agitation I feel when I don’t know who is talking with me.

It is interesting and challenging to attempt to put my auditory perceptions on paper. I find that we have a rich and fairly consistent vocabulary when we’re talking about someone’s appearance – we rarely dispute characteristics like tallness, eye color, or skin tone. We agree that redheads are redheads.

When it comes to voices, I like to talk about resonance, placement, texture, timbre, and speech patterns. The terms I haven’t snagged from linguistics courses and singing lessons are usually my own, tailored to my perceptions. When I say that a voice is “thick,” “honey-colored,” or “bevelled,” I can’t expect others to know what I mean. I’m trying to pin words to the sound-feelings in my head. For this reason, I particularly enjoy writing poetry that explores the voices that stay with me.

For most, I think that the voice is an undervalued aspect of our sensory experience. When a voice captures my attention, I am willing to listen for hours – so that I can analyze patterns of pronunciation, inflection, and timbre. When I find a voice I like, I can’t wait to tell someone about it, hoping that they will appreciate it with me – in the same wild, fanciful language.

Rich, warm, wavery, or light, voices invite me to understand how people feel at any moment of utterance. They invite me to ask, How does this person sound? How does she/he want to sound? I believe that our voices hold more expression than we realize.

5 thoughts on “Hearing Voices

  1. Emily, this essay was enlightening to me on several levels: 1) the courtesy of self-introductions and their usefulness to you 2) the various words you use to describe and define the sound of a particular voice–some of these terms are lovely 3) the fact that you can use auditory cues in your written poetry is fascinating & must produce some unexpected and rewarding poems for others as well as yourself. Still enjoying your blog very much & I hope that your students will be able to read it too. Lois

  2. Hey Emily,
    I came across your blog through my friend Henry linking to your pages. I find your posts very interesting and echo the thoughts of Lois Gray above on this particular posting.
    Regarding your “amazing” skill as you quote it… I have two brief things to say about this… albeit probably not very articulately:
    1) It is my humble opinion that when people “flex” a particular part of their body (whether it be their legs, arms, or parts of the brain) the results often appear “amazing” and even “incredible” to those that haven’t attempted to do the same. Your skill, although perhaps borne out of necessity rather than choice, is something that you appear to actively work at developing, just as other practice running quickly, calculating sums or flying aircraft. Similarly, I work hard to place names to faces, especially when meeting groups of people, so that I’m able to recognise them later using these visual cues in ultimately the same way as you use the aural ones.
    2) I can “do numbers”… and others often think this is “amazing”, particularly when it comes to estimating and calculating things, splitting bills or other matter I consider fairly trivial. However, when they exclaim these things, I’ve never felt tempted to provide a flippant response like “I use the crystal ball I carry around for these particular occasions” (using this as an analogy to your considered response to your professor’s original response).
    I honestly don’t believe people say those things to be rude/insulting or anything of that nature, but often because they have never considered them particularly easy themselves… and, like Lois and me, find the ability itself interesting want to understand more about it and how that skill has been nurtured/developed.

    As for the ‘testing’ part… that would absolutely wear thin on me in five seconds flat. I have absolute sympathy for your reactions in those cases.

    Anyhow, I’ve enjoyed reading your blog and hope to read more in the future.

    1. Thanks so much for the excellent feedback. I understand what you mean about a skill being extraordinary because we ourselves don’t possess it. I try to take attitudes like this into consideration, which is why I usually don’t deliver the flippant reply that comes to mind. It’s my goal to make others comfortable around me and I don’t want them to feel insulted.

      The attitude for which I have very little patience is the one that deems ANY effort I make in any direction as amazing…because the person believes that disabled people are totally inept. I’ve encountered many people who throw compliments at me, simply because they don’t know what to say or they are astounded that I can dress myself, feed myself, and walk around without harm. Because of this, I feel skeptical when I receive generic praise, like, “That’s so awesome!” Maybe it’s the editor in me, but I want people to go into detail about what I did well and what I can do better! As you and Lois have both done! 🙂

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