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Feb 21 2012

If Mitt Romney’s Voice Were Music to My Ears: A Vocal Impact Analysis of the Candidates

Published by at 6:11 pm under communication,Speaking,vocal image


What if you could step back from the rhetoric of the debates and hear the candidates differently?  What if there were hints about who they are hiding in plain site?  Well, there are.  That’s not to say that I can tell you who is the best candidate, but I can tell you what their vocal delivery might be saying about their character and even their conviction. You might listen differently tomorrow night.

There are at least two dozen aspects of sound that effect our perception of a speaker (or a piece of music!)  They are such sound attributes as pace, pitch, volume, cadence, tone color, and rhythm to name a few. Let’s explore just two aspects of sound:  Pitch and cadence.  First, I’ll explain how these elements create the picture you have of another person. Second, we’ll examine the four Republican candidate’s voices for their use of these elements.

Pitch:  Every vocal sound you make is a pitch, or a tone on the musical scale. People generally speak within a certain pitch range most of the time, with more or less variety of pitch from time to time. There are cultural preferences for the pitch of the speaking voice.  In addition, the area in the voice that people use the most gives us an impression of their character or personality.
Cadence: Cadence is the way a sentence ends.  It is also the inflection of your speech.  There are two basic kinds of vocal cadence: open and closed.  An open cadence goes up in pitch, especially at the end of a sentence, sounding much like a question.  The other kind of cadence, closed, goes down in pitch at the end of a sentence or idea.  To use the two forms of cadence effectively, you mix them up, sounding open when you are friendly or inviting others to join in, and using closed cadence to finish your thoughts or state an opinion.

Mitt Romney:
Pitch:  His voice is low, a bass baritone range.  A low pitch is considered to be a foundation, a stabilizing factor, as in the bass in music.  We also equate low voices with authority.  The fact that he also has a steady pace and a lack of much vocal inflection in his speech might add to a perception of Mitt Romney as an authority who is stable and dependable.

Cadence: Romney uses more closed cadence than open.   Closed cadence indicates that you have opinions and answers.  It is the sound of conviction.  On the flip side, too much closed cadence can sound dogmatic and not open to others’ opinions.

Notice, here where a lack of certainty can change his cadence, however.  Listen to how much open ended cadence he used when he was confronted by an interviewer about releasing his tax info.

Newt Gingrich:  
Pitch: His voice is high and his pace is fast.  A high voice can carry well across a room.  It cuts through other sounds. However, his voice is higher than it needs to be (there is a pitch level for every voice that is optimum for resonance and strength, and his is above that) and he often sounds agitated or whiny.

Cadence: Gingrich uses more variety in his sound than Romney for the most part.  He stresses colorful words and uses more variations of pitch overall.  As I said before,  this implies friendliness. If you combine that with the fact that he uses a lot of open cadence, the impression can be that he is open to others’ ideas and is a nice guy.  However, the down side to so much open ended cadence is that it can also give the impression that the speaker is flaky, unable to commit, and unreliable.  The other problem with too much open ended cadence is that it creates run on sentences.  In Gingrich’s case, run on sentences sometimes get mixed with unfinished ideas and make his statements hard to follow. Listen here for an example.

There is no question that he can make definitive statements with commitment, however, as in this clip where he lit into John King regarding comments made by Gingrich’s ex-wife.

Rick Santorum:
Pitch: Rick Santorum has a sound that is right in between Romney and Gingrich in terms of pitch, more of a baritone/tenor sound.  He does, however, have a bit of a growl in the back of his throat from time to time.  What impression does that give you?

Cadence: Santorum uses more inflection, or vocal variety in his voice than either Newt or Mitt, which can add to a sense that he is friendly and open.  Early on, he overused open cadence in his speech, combined with a great deal of filler words such as “uh” and “um.” This can make a speaker sound unsure, even non-committal.  Here is an example in an interview on FOX.
However, in the January 19th debate, he was vastly improved and he used a lot more closed cadence.

Ron Paul:
Pitch: Ron Paul’s voice is pitched at a good place for resonance and strength. Consequently, he is able to use a lot of inflection because his voice is flexible. Of the four, his speech is the most varied in both pitch and cadence.  On the down side his voice tends to rise very high when he gets emphatic and then it sounds a little edgy.

Cadence: He mixes open and closed cadence so that he sounds convicted and also open. He exhibits energy.   Like Romney, he usually finishes thoughts and ideas before going on to the next idea. He overuses the word “but” as a connector and he stumbles from time to time, but more often than not he is able to avoid filler words completely.   As his energy rises, his articulation can get a little sloppy, making it more difficult to understand his words.  In the end,  I have to wonder if the reason he has gotten this far is because his colorful yet clear vocal image encourages us to listen and, in doing so, hear his ideas.  Listen to some clips here.

Update:  Now that the Arizona debate has happened, you can watch it below and see what you think about my analysis.

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