How High is your Sound Emotional Quotient?
Sounds, like smells, stir memories and evoke emotions. Peeping pond frogs, fireworks, summer cicadas, thunderstorms, and rain falling on a lake, the trigger of a coffee machine gurgling that last bit of liquid signaling that it’s ready in seconds. These sound effects all trigger different emotional responses. Human communication, verbal and non-verbal, also triggers certain emotions. Music is said to soothe the savage beast, but anyone at a rock concert can attest to its power to rouse and ignite as well. Apparently, our brains bundle sound with emotion. Singers and voice actors study the myriad subtleties and shifts in tone, pitch, rhythm, and cadence that convey different emotions. Both from a technical and a performance-based perspective.
Neurologists also study the emotional effect of sound. Knowing more about sound itself and how it affects humans helps deepen that understanding from the artist’s and the listener’s (audiences) perspectives. As voice actors, the higher your SEQ (sound emotional quotient), the more successful the VO performance.
Loudness, Pitch and Timbre – Your Brain on Sound
Let’s get science-y for a moment. The three psychological characteristics of sound are loudness, pitch, and timbre. Your brain perceives the physical structure of sound interpreted into these characteristics.
Measured in decibels, loudness depends on the amplitude, or height, of sound waves. So the “taller” the wave, the higher the amplitude, the louder the sound is perceived by the brain. With every 10-decibels, the loudness doubles. A whisper chimes in at around 20 decibels, a regular conversation is in the 60-decibel range and someone shouting at close range could be as high as 115 or do damage, as anything above 120-decibels can do.
Pitch is the psychological perception of the frequency of sound waves. The more often the sound wave cycles from high point to low point, the higher the frequency and perceived pitch. Think of the sound associated with a car gaining speed. The sound of the engine starts low and gradually rises in pitch the faster the engine moves its pistons. This is the same with sound waves – the more rapidly it cycles through high and low, the higher the sound. Hand in hand with amplitude, this frequency can affect the perception of loudness as well. Frequency is measured in hertz, or cycles per second and the human ear can hear between 20 and 20,000 hertz.
Timbre, is a little bit more esoteric as it refers to the quality of the sound. The complexity of the sound wave has a lot to do with timbre. Pure tones have single frequency sound waves where most other sounds are a mixture of different frequencies. This messiness and jumble of frequencies is to some degree up for interpretation by the brain perceiving it.
The Emotional Connection
A large amount of research has been done on the emotional connection that humans make to sound. This connection can be quite powerful – a mother’s heartbeat and then eventually her voice are the first sounds a baby hears and then associates with primal needs for safety and sustenance. Mirror neurons in the brain have been proven to be activated when someone laughs, causing others to laugh. Communication through tears can often trigger feelings of sadness in others. An incredible shift happened when movies introduced sound. Actors needed to have nice sounding voices or be able to improve the sound of their voice quickly. Composers and sound engineers were able to experiment with orchestral and foley sounds to elicit fear, wonder, or a happy ending in movies, literally toying with the audience’s emotions.
And not just emotions are touched by sound. Jonah Lehrer, author of Proust Was a Neuroscientist, describes how sound is a physical touch: “It’s just waves of vibrating air, it’s just your voice, beginning in your voice box, compressed as air. That air travels through space and time, into my ear, waves of diffused, vibrating air, focused and channeled into my eardrum, which vibrates a few very small bones, and the little bones transmit the vibration into this salty sea, where the hairs are. And the hair cells are fascinating; they become active, literally bent by a wave. They bend like trees in a breeze.” Which explains why researchers at McGill University in Montreal found a correlation between subjects observing that a piece of music “gave them the chills” and the physical release of dopamine, as observed by PET scan. Sound physically touches the listener and causes the release of feel-good chemicals in the brain.
How Music Helps Us Remember
Scientists and researchers believe that the human brain developed structures to respond to music earlier than the structures to respond to language, thereby allowing music to help humans recall information. In an article for CNN Health Daniel Levitan explains “many of our ancestors, before there was writing, used music to help them remember things, such as how to prepare foods or the way to get to a water source. These procedural tasks would have been easier to remember as songs”. This additionally explains why some songs, like the ABC song from early childhood, stick with us throughout our lifetime.
Music can also evoke memories. Certainly, songs with other significance associated with them, such as weddings or breakups, rites of passage, or significant times of growth can take the listener back to that time period in their lives. Alzheimer’s patients have been known to respond to music when verbal communication isn’t as effective. Seemingly underscoring that non-verbal sound response is etched onto our brains first.
Unwanted Sound or Noise
In addition to allowing humans to develop emotion and memory, sound responses are closely linked to other survival mechanisms, such as fear, joy, and fight-or-flight instincts. But unwanted sound or noise can also cause overwhelm in some brains as in misophonia. I first became aware of this condition when my daughter, who suffers from misophonia, came home in tears explaining she couldn’t deal with the kids in her kindergarten class at lunch who chewed noisily and talked with their mouths open. Triggered by her sensitivities I began to notice my own personal pet peeves, like the slurping of soup, the sucking on a straw at the bottom of a milkshake, or repeated scraping of a spoon on a bowl.
These personal tolerances (or intolerances) are something all voiceover artists need to be aware of, and science has demonstrated it’s especially important for e-learning narrators. Studies show that “noise”, or the brain’s perception of noise can have a negative impact on learners, and even something as small as mouth clicks in excess can be extremely distracting for learners.
Voice Actors and Emotions
So how does this sound emotion quotient help voice actors? Understanding how your audience is going to respond emotionally and physically to your performance can have a large impact on how you bring a script to life. Uncovering the subtext as well as the content of the message is key to tapping into your emotional palette to create impactful performances that resonate with listeners.
Again, let’s loop in the science. It takes just one-tenth of a second for our brains to begin to recognize emotions expressed by vocalizations, according to researchers from McGill. In their study, they had subjects listen to nonsensical phrases intentionally lacking any emotional word cues and asked them to assess the underlying emotion based on non-verbal elements (back to loudness, pitch, and timbre). The results were obviously telling. Additionally, Professor Albert Mehrabian and colleagues at the University of California, Los Angeles (UCLA), conducted studies into human communication patterns in 1967 and came up with Mehrabian’s Rule: communication is only 7 percent verbal and 93 percent non-verbal. (And of that non-verbal element, 38 percent was tone of voice).
Knowing how to vocalize the script can have as much or more impact than what words themselves convey. This helps voice actors create performances that resonate (in more ways than one). The higher your SEQ, and the more tools in your actor’s toolkit, the easier it is to have a meaningful impact.