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Fascinating article from the Journal of Experimental Psychology, I like the sound of your voice: Affective learning about vocal signals‘.  We’d all like to think, wouldn’t we, that having a ‘musical’ voice is what counts, and that – to paraphrase the old song – ‘It’s not what you say, it’s the way that you say it’, a kind of vocal sugaring of the pill.

But it seems from this research that while it’s true that the mere sound of a voice can induce different affects in us – hear laughter, and you have a general sense of wellbeing, hear a scream, and you begin to worry – that’s not the whole story.  The results of this study suggest  that hearing a speaker say negatively charged words (like taxes or divorce) would influence your judgement of the acoustic qualities of their voice to the extent that even if that person were to say relatively nice things at a later date, your experience of the content of what they said earlier has coloured the perceived quality of their voice. The opposite applies – someone you heard talk about love and kittens yesterday could tell you you’re fat and for a moment you might think they’d said something nice.

This seems to have enormous implications for teaching in the arts. However ‘musical’ your voice may be, if what you say is negatively charged, then your listener’s perception of those musical qualities will be overridden by the content. And conversely, it goes some way to explaining something that is beginning to puzzle me in my own research – why is it that the people I know that seem to me to be very ‘musical’ often have very quiet, perhaps even subdued and not necessarily highly expressive voices? Could it be that what they all have in common is that they’re nice people, and that their voice is ‘music to my ears’?

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Jonathan Still, ballet pianist