voices sound benno meyer roc how biology science

Voices

Could there be a reason why females have high and men low voices?

Some ants, like the tropical Pogonomyrmex, produce faint sounds. But since ant colonies are composed of only female individuals, the latter alone are capable of making sounds in these insects. When some sneaky males occur, it is only for the purpose of reproduction. But a situation like this is exceptional. Had the ancient philosopher Xenarchos of Seleukia known of it, it would have surprised him greatly, for he is credited with that famous (albeit somewhat impolite) exclamation: “Cicadas have such happy lives, for they have silent wives!” He was, of course, alluring to the fact that only the male cicada sings and that the female cicada listens quietly. In fact, it’s not just cicadas, in which the females are voiceless (or only capable of some weak clicking responses to indicate they have noticed a singing male).

There are numerous other insects, in which males alone are the producers of highly audible sounds. The same holds true for most species of frogs. But even in animals in which the females are also capable of emitting sounds, their vocalizations are often quite different from those of the males, a pattern that can be found under water (for example in fishes known as ‘pearl fishes’, which belong to the family Carapidae) as well as on land. Just thinking of birds, the common chicken comes to mind: Has anyone ever heard a hen crow like a cock? It simply does not happen. Of course, sexually different vocalizations are not universally present: Nobody would be able to distinguish the bark of a bitch from that of a male dog, but differences in pitch are certainly very common amongst mammals, including us humans.

Why then do voices of women sound so different from those of men? The underlying anatomical cause for the difference lies in the larynx (the voice box) of males and females. Females have shorter and thinner vocal cords, which vibrate with higher frequency and emit clearer and more highly pitched tones. Hence you find them, and not their menfolk, sing soprano in a choir. Higher frequencies can be located more easily and thus the spot from where a female screams (or talks loudly) will be identified more easily by men searching for a woman than the location from which low frequency sounds arrive. Females, being the weaker sex, may in their evolutionary past have been in greater need to call effectively for help and assistance (just like infants and children do with their high-pitched voices) than adult males. It is also possible that female choice in selecting a partner could have led to the clearly apparent sexual dimorphism of voices in humans: it has, afterall, been shown that females associate lower male voices with greater physical attractiveness and stamina. Males, on the other hand, associate a low-pitch voice with greater dominance. Brain scans have shown that female voices cause activity in the auditory section of the brain of the listener to ‘read’ the voice and form an impression of the speaker, while male voices are being analysed in a brain region, in which one’s own experiences are being compared with the new voice to determine gender and possible hierarchical position of its emitter.

In fact, as Feinberg and co-workers in Scotland have recently reported, men relate facial femininity to vocal femininity and a female voice can therefore be regarded as a predictor of facial attractiveness. But, as we all know, in humans, it’s not the voice alone that counts: it’s foremost and for all the words! A loving “I’ve missed you so much” would always sound better than “Get lost”, irrespective of the pitch, in which such words are uttered.

voices sound benno meyer roc how biology science


© Dr V.B. Meyer-Rochow and http://www.bioforthebiobuff.wordpress.com, 2015.
Unauthorized use and/or duplication of this material without express and written permission from this site’s author and/or owner is strictly prohibited. Excerpts and links may be used, provided that full and clear credit is given to V.B Meyer-Rochow and http://www.bioforthebiobuff.wordpress.com with appropriate and specific direction to the original content.

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