Watch any old movie from the mid-century, and you’ll notice that women’s voices are a lot different than how they sound today.
Language and dictation evolve and are dependent on the fashions of the era. For example, the transatlantic accent was a style of speech that was in vogue among movie stars during the first half of the 20th century — like Audrey Hepburn’s voice in Breakfast at Tiffany’s.
The transatlantic accent reflects a bygone era among movie stars. In a similar manner, high-pitched voices are becoming rarer — most women today speak at a deeper pitch than their mothers or grandmothers did. This phenomenon may have something to do with changing social dynamics.
Animal Instincts and Human Voices
Animals often determine the aggressiveness of another animal by the sounds they make. It’s pretty basic: a deep growl indicates a threatening, dominant larger animal, and a high-pitched tone like a buzz or a bird song indicates a smaller, submissive animal.
Humans gauge a person’s size, attractiveness, and authoritativeness by the sound of their voice.
Similarly, humans gauge a person’s size, attractiveness, and authoritativeness by the sound of their voice. Lowering the pitch of the voice is a common tactic in nature during altercations. Humans also do this to signal their intention to be serious, win an argument, and protect their resources. Humans are like animals in their assessment of dictation and vocal sounds.
Men Are Less Attracted to Low-Pitched Voices
With nature in mind, perhaps it’s no surprise that men find female voices that indicate a smaller body size — high-pitched, breathy voices — more attractive. In one study, women were photographed and measured, and their voices were played to male judges who were asked to assess the women's age and voice attractiveness from a recording. The men were also asked to assess the attractiveness of the photographs of the women. The men were in strong agreement on which voice and face was most attractive, and the women deemed to have attractive faces had attractive voices. Higher-frequency voices were assessed as being more attractive and as belonging to younger women. Larger women have lower voices, and the men judged them as having less attractive faces and voices.
Men find female voices that indicate a smaller body size — high-pitched, breathy voices — more attractive.
Females, on the other hand, find a low-pitched voice more attractive, as it reflects a larger body size. Lower-pitched voices are associated with dominance and protectiveness — but without breathiness, such a voice can sound too aggressive.
Sounding more assertive — and being more assertive — might have the unintended effect of changing whether or not a man finds a woman attractive. Women with lower voices are considered less agreeable, more argumentative, and more competitive, which may affect a man’s sexual interest in her.
Gender Norms May Affect Women’s Voices
A study from the University of South Australia published in Journal of Voice showed that women in 1993 have significantly deeper voices than women of the same age recorded in 1945. The researcher studied the voices of two groups of young Australian women by comparing recordings of women talking in 1945 with recordings of women talking in the early 1990s. The team found that the “fundamental frequency” had dropped by 23 Hz over five decades – from an average of 229 Hz (roughly an A# below middle C) to 206 Hz (roughly a G#). This is an audible difference.
What’s changed in Australia since 1945? Well, 1945 was before the Sexual Revolution and the “women’s liberation” movement, which took women out of the home and into the workforce, where they now compete with men on a large scale. Researchers speculate that this has led women to adopt a deeper vocal tone in order to project dominance and authority in a competitive workforce. When you’re competing for your own resources, you don’t want to sound submissive or weak, which is what higher-pitched voices are associated with (and which are more attractive to men). You’ll want to sound authoritative, like you know what you’re talking about.
Women adopted a deeper vocal tone in order to project dominance and authority in a competitive workforce.
Fascinatingly, women in countries with more gender equality speak more deeply than women in countries with more traditional values. Women in the Netherlands, for example, speak lower than women in Japan. It’s possible that in places where women are more independent, female voices are audibly much lower as they compete for resources with men and with each other.
If women’s voices are lowering as time goes on, what does this mean? Women in more egalitarian societies have lower voices than women in more traditional societies — whether that society is modern-day Japan or 1940s Australia. It could be that along with feminism and women’s liberation comes unintended physiological changes in women. Egalitarian society or not, certain vocal interactions will still trigger certain embedded animal instincts — something feminism can’t ever change.