The NonVerbal Dictionary of Gestures, Signs & Body Language Cues

Tone of Voice

The curate shouted, the landlady screamed, her daughter wailed, Maritornes wept, Dorotea was dumfounded, Luscinda terrified, and Dona Clara ready to faint. --Miguel de Cervantes (Don Quixote, 1605:407)

The young pastor's voice was tremulously sweet, rich, deep, and broken. The feeling that it so evidently manifested, rather than the direct purport of the words, caused it to vibrate in all hearts, and brought the listeners into one accord of sympathy. --Nathaniel Hawthorne (The Scarlet Letter)

Stella! --Marlon Brando (Streetcar Named Desire
, 1951)

Voice quality1. The manner in which a verbal statement is presented, e.g., its rhythm, breathiness, hoarseness, or loudness. 2. Those qualities of speaking and vocalizing not usually included in the study of languages and linguistics.

Usage: Tone of voice reflects psychological arousal, emotion, and mood. It may also carry social information, as in a sarcastic, superior, or submissive manner of speaking.

Aprosodia. Like aphasia (the dominant, left-brain hemisphere's inability to articulate or comprehend speech), aprosodia is an inability to articulate or comprehend emotional voice tones. Aprosodia is due to damage to the right-brain's temporal-lobe language areas. Patients with aprosodia miss the affective (or "feeling") content of speech. Persons with damage to the right frontal lobe speak in flat or monotone voices devoid of normal inflection.

Dominance1. "The more threatened or aggressive an animal becomes, the lower and harsher its voice turns--thus, the bigger it seems" (Hopson 1980:83). 2. According to Kent State University researchers Stanford W. Gregory, Jr. and Stephen Webster, people unconsciously adapt to each other's voice tones (a phenomenon studied by students of "communication accommodation theory"). "The researchers suggest that when two people converse, the person whose low-frequency [i.e., dominant] vocal characteristics change the least is perceived by both as having the higher social status" (Schwartz 1996:A4).

Evolution. According to Eugene Morton of the National Zoological Park in Washington, D.C., almost all mammalian sounds are blends of three basic vocalizations: growls, barks, and whines (Hopson 1980). Our own vocalizations, e.g., at a conference table (both while speaking and apart from speech), reflect these basic three sound modes, as in using a low-pitched, low and loud, or high-pitched voice to argue a discussion point.

FAQs: A significant number of voice qualities are universal across all human cultures (though they are also subject to cultural modification and shaping). 1. Around the world, e.g., adults use higher pitched voices to speak to infants and young children. The softer pitch is innately "friendly," and suggests a nonaggressive, nonhostile pose. 2. With each other, men and women use higher pitched voices in greetings and in courtship, to show harmlessness and to invite physical closeness. 3. In almost every language, speakers use a rising intonation to ask a question. The higher register appeases the request for information, and is often accompanied by diffident palm-up gestures and by submissive shoulder-shrugs (for neurological links between tone of voice and these cues, see SPECIAL VISCERAL NERVE). 4. The human brain is programmed to respond with specific emotions to specific vocal sounds (see, e.g., CRYInfancyMUSICNeuro-notes ISTARTLE REFLEXNeuro-notes).

Literature1. "They [the young Englishmen at Gatsby's party] were at least agonizingly aware of the easy money in the vicinity and convinced that it was theirs for a few words in the right key" (F. Scott Fitzgerald, The Great Gatsby). 2. "Gazing at Pearl, Hester Prynne often dropped her work upon her knees, and cried out with an agony which she would fain have hidden, but which made utterance for itself, betwixt speech and a groan." (Nathaniel Hawthorne, The Scarlet Letter [1850])

Media. "There's a hidden battle for dominance waged in almost every conversation--and the way we modulate the lower frequencies of our voices shows who's on top" (Washington Post [Schwartz 1996:A4]).

Primatology. "Probably the commonest kind of sound [in wild baboons] is the grunt" (Hall and DeVore 1972:158).

Ritual. Human beings use emotional, nonvocal sounds in their ceremonies, rites, and rituals. In Japan, e.g., the rhythmic clacking of cherry wood clappers (known ashyoshigi) is used to begin traditional sumo contests. "The rhythm is oddly disturbing," biologist Lyall Watson writes. "It is precisely that which, as laboratory studies show, stimulates the right hemisphere of the brain, the one that generates emotions instead of logic" [220B].

Salesmanship. "Deeper voices carry more authority for men and women. Everything you say somehow seems truer or more important" (Delmar 1984:39).

U.S. politics. "Would Martin Luther King's 'dream' have captured the imagination of white and black Americans alike had he pronounced his vision in a squeaking soprano? Doubtful" (Blum 1988:3-8).

RESEARCH REPORTS1. Research on "tone of voice" emerged in 1951 with the study of paralanguage, in the pioneering research of George Trager and Henry Lee Smith (Trager 1958). 2. In 1953, researchers noted that language was accompanied by two other communication systems, kinesics (i.e., body-motion signs) and the extra-linguistic noises of paralanguage (Hall and Trager 1953). 3. In 1958, paralanguage was defined to include voice qualities ("modifications of language and other noises") and vocalizations ("noises not having the structure of language") (Trager 1958:4). 4. In 1960, the most intensive study of vocal pauses, hems, haws, sighs, gasps, coughs, throat-clearings, speech rate, register, volume, and tone quality--performed on a film of an initial psychiatric interview--was completed; despite voluminous data, it offered few conclusions about tone of voice or paralanguage (Pittenger, Hockett, and Danehy 1960). 5. "When speaking to babies [and in courtship] we give a friendly smile and raise the pitch of our voices" (Eibl-Eibesfeldt 1971:8). 6. "In Japan, the paralinguistic features which indicate respect and politeness are breathiness, openness, lowered volume, and raised level of pitch" (Key 1975:151).

E-Commentary: "My boss talked to our managing partner about your organization. He is interested in finding training materials that deal with tone of voice in the workplace. There were two examples that the partner gave to explain what he meant. One is to deliver a tough message (like you're fired) and have the person not take it in a negative way. The second example is where a person greets a co-worker and makes them angry with their tone of voice. Neither of these examples is great for clarifying what he wants, but they do give some idea." --J.C., CCGVP.com (3/22/00 11:45:53 AM Pacific Standard Time)

Neuro-notes I. Like the Adam's-apple-jump, tone of voice cues (e.g., vocal tension, throat tightness, and the throat-clear) are responsive to emotional stimuli from thelimbic system, carried by special visceral nerves designed for feeding. "Gut feelings" of anxiety or nervousness thus may be revealed as throat, larynx, and pharynx muscles unconsciously tighten as if to seal off the alimentary canal from harm.

Neuro-notes II. After surgical removal of her amygdala, "Nonverbal expressions of fear and anger, such as growls and screams, also eluded her comprehension, although she usually recognized sounds that signify happiness, sadness, disgust, and surprise" (Bower 1997:38).


Illustration of musculature of vocal folds (copyright 1990 by Oxford University Press)