Have you ever seen Singin’ in the Rain? One of the movie’s most hilarious moments is when the beautiful silent movie star Lina Lamont is asked to start making “talking pictures.” As soon as this gorgeous screen siren opens her mouth, the illusion of her beauty is shattered: her squeaky voice instantly transforms her from a glamorous leading lady into a cartoonish boor. Threatened with losing their box-office cash-cow, the studio chiefs frantically enroll her in voice and etiquette lessons, but nothing helps, and eventually they’re forced to substitute the voice of the attractive and lovely-voiced Kathy Selden.
But what makes one voice attractive and another unattractive — and how much effect does a voice have on our overall perception of attractiveness? Recent research has found that women with attractive faces also tend to have attractive voices (which may explain why Lamont’s hideous voice in Singin’ in the Rain is so surprising).
In general we perceive higher voices as more feminine. Faces with exaggerated feminine features are also perceived as more attractive. Can we say the same about feminine voices?
A group of researchers led by David Feinberg recorded the voices of 123 young women as they pronounced five vowel sounds: ah, ee, eh, oh, and oo. Then ten male volunteers rated each voice for attractiveness. Here are the results:
The graph compares the pitch of each voice with its attractiveness rating. There is a lot of variation in the ratings for a given voice pitch, and many low-pitched voices are rated as more attractive than higher-pitched voices. Yet the overall pattern is shown by the diagonal line, the linear model, which indicates that high-pitched voices are seen as significantly more attractive than low-pitched voices. The dashed line represents the alternative explanation for the data: the idea that average voices are more attractive. While statistical analysis shows this model is also significant, the linear model fits the data significantly better. Higher-pitched voices are more attractive.
So will simply raising the pitch of a female voice make it more attractive, or are there other factors involved? Maybe high-pitch is simply an artifact of some other vocal feature. In a second experiment, three groups of five voices were chosen from the 123 original voices: five low-pitched, five medium-pitched, and five high-pitched. Then a computer program was used to artificially raise and lower the pitch of each of these voices. Then hundreds of volunteers listened to high- and low-pitch versions of each voice and indicated which was more attractive. Here are the results:
No matter what the starting pitch was, significantly more male raters found the higher-pitched version of a voice more attractive. The same result was true for female raters, for all except the highest-pitched voices. While these results support the first experiment, they also suggest that for women at least, there may be some limit to how high a voice can go and still be considered attractive.
Overall, however, it seems that as long as a voice is within the normal range of pitches, the pattern is for higher-pitched women’s voices to be perceived as more attractive. If there is a limit to how high a woman’s voice can be and still seem attractive, my anecdotal research suggests that that limit is somewhere below Lamont’s pitch in Singin’ in the Rain.
Feinberg, D.R., DeBruine, L.M., Jones, B.C., Perrett, D.I. (2008). The role of femininity and averageness of voice pitch in aesthetic judgments of women’s voices. Perception, 37(4), 615-623. DOI: 10.1068/p5514