Once upon a time, I was a radio DJ in the Chicago market. I initially thought voice talent would be my life’s work, but I found after about three years on the radio, I longed for a form of communication that was a bit more interactive. So I left the studio, and I carried the vocal lessons I learned from my radio and voiceover work into the classroom. There, I encourage my public speaking students to explore the many ways they can use their voices to enhance their communication. One of the many vocal tools available to speakers is pitch. To get an overview of vocal pitch, let’s talk a little bit about what it is and how we can use it appropriately.
What It Is
Pitch is the placement of your voice on a musical scale. It’s not volume (loud or soft), and it’s not rate (fast or slow). Instead, pitch is how low or high your voice is. A low pitch has a slower sound wave frequency, while a high pitch has a faster sound wave frequency . It looks like this:
You might have noticed that your pitch gets higher when you are nervous. That’s because your nervousness causes your vocal cords to tighten, resulting in a faster vibration which produces a higher pitch. Speakers who don’t change the pitch of their voice are referred to as monotone. This vocal pattern, which has very little variety, can cause audience members to become bored with the presentation. We are drawn to voices with pitch variety because their vocal expressiveness demonstrates greater emotion.
Higher pitches are often associated with excitement or expressing care. Think about the way we generally raise our pitch when greeting friends we haven’t seen in a while or when talking to a young child. Research shows that lower pitches, on the other hand, are usually associated with authority. Think about how parents or teachers tend to drop their pitch when reprimanding a child. Ingo Titze, director of the National Center for Voice and Speech at the University of Utah, reminds us that it’s important to exercise our vocal range on a regular basis. He says, “If you never stretch your vocal cords … eventually the ligament will atrophy into a simpler structure and you won’t have that range available to you.”
How To Use It
As you begin to explore the variety in your voice, it might feel strange at first. But remember that you aren’t looking to recreate your voice, you are just trying to explore the upper and lower parts of your natural range. You might start by reading expressively from a book written for children. That type of content naturally lends itself to more pitch variety. Or, pick a word and say it as low as you can and continue saying the word, raising your pitch each time until you’ve said it as high as you can. Then reverse the exercise, moving gradually lower until you reach the bottom pitch in your range.
But remember that you don’t want to push it too far. Research shows that audience members prefer a natural voice over one outside of that range about 83-86% of the time. If you try to speak higher than what comes naturally to you, your voice will start to sound pinched and shrill, which won’t be pleasing to your audience. On the other hand, if you try to drop your pitch too low and your voice gets drawn out and scratchy, you are experiencing what’s called vocal fry, and your listeners won’t like the sound of that, either. Just work to get familiar and comfortable with your vocal variety.
Once you’ve played around with the higher and lower pitches of your voice, thoughtfully match your pitch to your content. If you are talking about something that is more exciting, you might try raising your pitch just a bit. If you are talking about something more serious, try dropping your pitch just a little. The increased “color” in your voice will be pleasing to your audience and will help to keep them interested in what you are saying.
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