ASA Lay Language Papers
165th Acoustical Society of America Meeting

The Language of Emotion: Acoustic differences in the singing and speaking voice

S. R. Livingstone –
K. Peck -
F. A. Russo -
Department of Psychology
Ryerson University
Toronto, Ontario

Popular Version of Paper 5aMUb
Presented Friday afternoon, June 7, 2013
ICA 2013 Montreal

Speech and song are universal forms of human expression that reflect distinct modes of communication. To the best of our knowledge, speech and song evolved between 40,000 to 250,000 years ago, and are found in every human society on the planet (Huron, 2001; Fitch, 2006; Conard et al., 2009). Some scientists believe that song and speech may once have evolved from a common origin (Brown, 2000; Mithen, 2005; Fitch, 2006). Darwin proposed that a ‘sing-song’ type of vocalization was humankind’s first language, and that one of its primary goals was the communication of emotion (Darwin, 1871).

Darwin’s hypothesis was based on the observation that song and speech, while distinct, sound remarkably similar. Darwin was not alone in this observation, as other scientists of that period had noted the two appear to express emotion in similar ways (Rousseau, 1761/1966; Helmholtz, 1863/1954; Spencer, 1875). Recently, scientists have begun to investigate the possibility that speech, song, and music may share a common ‘acoustic code’ (Scherer, 1995; Juslin and Laukka, 2003). That is, when either speaking or singing, we express a particular emotion with similar changes to the acoustics of our voices. For example, we would express ‘angry’ in both song and speech with similar patterns of spectral energy (see Fig. 1) (audio 1, audio 2).

Fig. 1

Figure 1. Spectrograms of the sentence “Kids are talking by the door” spoken and sung in an angry voice.

However, despite their long cultural and scientific association, there appear to have been no direct comparisons of the acoustic properties of emotion in song and speech.

Our goal was to show that speakers and singers use similar changes to their vocal acoustics, when speaking or singing particular emotions.

We recorded six highly trained actors while they spoke and sung sentences with a range of different emotions (calm, very calm, happy, very happy, sad, very sad, angry, very angry, scared, very scared, and no emotion). We video and audio recorded 6 actors, each producing 88 distinct utterances (see Movie 1). We then analyzed a range of different acoustic measures from the acoustic recordings.

Movie 1. Video recordings of an actor speaking and singing with a happy emotion. Click here to view.

As hypothesized, speech and song conveyed emotions using similar changes on all of the analyzed acoustic features. For example, happy speech and song were louder, had a higher and wider pitch range, and were more energy in the higher spectral range than sad speech and song (see Fig. 2).

Fig. 2

Figure 2. Range of pitch of the voice in speech and song, comparing happy and sad emotions.

These data confirm that speech and song express emotions in similar ways, as hypothesized. These results extend our understanding of the entwined nature of speech and song, and may provide evidence of their ancient links to a common evolutionary origin.

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