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.