Does your voice sound tall or short?

In an experiment, people were able to accurately discriminate the taller speaker 62.17 percent of the time, which is significantly more often than they would by chance alone. (Credit: Perception of Life Photography/Flickr)

People can often tell how tall or short you are just by the sound of your voice, research shows.

The key may be in a particular type of sound produced in the lower airways of the lungs, known as a subglottal resonance.

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“The best way to think about subglottal resonances is to imagine blowing into a glass bottle partially full with liquid: the less liquid in the bottle, the lower the sound,” says John Morton, a psychology graduate student at Washington University in St. Louis.

The frequency of the subglottal resonance differs depending on the height of the person generating it, with resonances becoming progressively lower as height increases.

Morton presented his findings Dec. 3 at the meeting of the Acoustical Society of America.

“In humans, the resonances are part of a larger group of sounds, which are sort of like an orchestra playing over the sound being made from the glass bottle. (The glass bottle) sound is still there, but it isn’t easy to hear.”

Despite the masking of the subglottal resonance by other voice sounds, researchers wondered if the key information it contained could still be heard by listeners.

Through two sets of experiments, they put the theory to the test. In the first, pairs of same-sexed “talkers” of different heights were recorded as they read identical sentences. Later, the recordings were played to listeners who guessed which of the two speakers was the tallest.

In the second experiment, listeners ranked five talkers (again of the same gender) from tallest to shortest, after hearing them read.

The researchers found that participants were able to accurately discriminate the taller speaker 62.17 percent of the time, which is significantly more often than they would by chance alone, Morton says.

“Both males and females were equally able to discriminate and rank the heights of talkers” of both genders.

The research has criminal justice implications, Morton says.

“One would certainly like to know if, when an ‘ear witness,’ as they are often called, says that a talker’s voice seemed ‘tall’ or ‘large,’ this information can be trusted. The answer seems to be yes.”

Source: Washington University in St. Louis