Do people find vocal fry in popular music expressive?

 

Mackenzie Parrott – mackenzie.lanae@gmail.com

 

John Nix – john.nix@utsa.edu

 

Popular version of paper 2aMU5, “Listener Ratings of Singer Expressivity in Musical Performance.”

 

Presented Tuesday, May 24, 2016, 10:20-10:35 am, Salon B/C, ASA meeting, Salt Lake City

Vocal fry is the lowest register of the human voice.  Its distinct sound is characterized by a low rumble interspersed with uneven popping and crackling.  The use of fry as a vocal mannerism is becoming increasingly common in American speech, fueling discussion about the implications of its use and how listeners perceive the speaker [1].  Previous studies have suggested that listeners find vocal fry to be generally unpleasant in women’s speech, but associate it with positive characteristics in men’s speech [2].

As it has become more prevalent, fry has perhaps not surprisingly found its place in many commercial song styles as well.  Many singers are implementing fry as a stylistic device at the onset or offset of a sung tone.  This can be found very readily in popular musical styles, presumably to impact and amplify the emotion that the performer is attempting to convey.

Researchers at the University of Texas at San Antonio conducted a survey to analyze whether listeners’ ratings of a singer’s expressivity in musical samples in two contemporary commercial styles (pop and country) were affected by the presence of vocal fry, and to see if there was a difference in listener ratings according to the singer’s gender.  A male and a female singer recorded musical samples for the study in a noise reduction booth.  As can be seen in the table below, the singers were asked to sing most of the musical selections twice, once using vocal fry at phrase onsets, and once without fry, while maintaining the same vocal quality, tempo, dynamics, and stylization.  Some samples were presented more than one time in the survey portion of the study to test listener reliability.

 

Song Singer Gender Vocal Mode
(Hit Me) Baby One More Time Female Fry Only
If I Die Young Female With and Without Fry
National Anthem Female With and Without Fry
Thinking Out Loud Male Without Fry Only
Amarillo By Morning Male With and Without Fry
National Anthem Male With and Without Fry

 

Across all listener ratings of all the songs, the recordings which included vocal fry were rated as being only slightly more expressive than the recordings which contained no vocal fry.  When comparing the use of fry between the male and female singer, there were some differences between the genders.  The listeners rated the samples where the female singer used vocal fry higher (e.g., more expressive) than those without fry, which was surprising considering the negative association with women using vocal fry in speech.  Conversely, the listeners rated the male samples without fry as being more expressive than those with fry. Part of this preference pattern may have also been an indication of the singer; the male singer was much more experienced with pop styles than the female singer, who is primarily classically trained.  The overall expressivity ratings for the male singer were higher than those of the female singer by a statistically significant margin.

There were also listener rating trends between the differing age groups of participants.  Younger listeners drove the gap of preference between the female singer’s performances with fry versus non-fry and the male singer’s performances without fry versus with fry further apart.  Presumably they are more tuned into stylistic norms of current pop singers.  However, this could also imply a gender bias in younger listeners.  The older listener groups rated the mean expressivity of the performers as being lower than the younger listener groups.  Since most of the songs that we sampled are fairly recent in production, this may indicate a generational trend in preference.  Perhaps listeners rate the style of vocal production that is most similar to what they listened to during their young adult years as the most expressive style of singing. These findings have raised many questions for further studies about vocal fry in pop and country music.

 

 

  1. Anderson, R.C., Klofstad, C.A., Mayew, W.J., Venkatachalam, M. “Vocal Fry May Undermine the Success of Young Women in the Labor Market. “ PLoS ONE, 2014. 9(5): e97506. doi:10.1371/journal.pone.0097506.

 

  1. Yuasa, I. P. “Creaky Voice: A New Feminine Voice Quality for Young Urban-Oriented Upwardly Mobile American Women.” American Speech, 2010. 85(3): 315-337.

 

 

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