What is a Sexy Voice?
What do we hear as a sexy voice? Some time ago, I was asked to supply some comments for a Channel Four programme on the 100 sexiest film voices. I was asked to offer some thoughts on a list of some famously ‘sexy’ voices including Marilyn Monroe, Marlon Brando, Joanna Lumley, Kim Basinger, Angelina Jolie and the changing voices of James Bond. I’ve been lucky enough to work with Kim Basinger, Angelina Jolie and Daniel Craig and I can confirm, yes, they do have sexy voices!
Many years ago, I did a research MA through Central School of Speech and Drama focusing on what seemed to be the most desired voice qualities for female performers. Funnily enough, some of the actors above had been the subjects of my research too and Joanna Lumley had come top of my small research poll just as she has in so many others since.
If I was asked to give a recipe for the archetypal sexy voice for women, it would be: low, resonant, possibly husky or breathy, ‘centred’ and not ‘disconnected’ from the physical person (I’ll try to explain what I mean by that), engaged and part of the performer’s ‘presence’. The recipe would be very similar for men, except, perhaps, without the breathy quality.
When the voice is being driven by a diaphragmatic-abdominal breath and there is no constriction in the throat, we feel that the speaker is alive to their emotions and feelings. (This is because we have a large cluster of nerve endings around the area of the solar plexus.) Thus they are more likely to arouse ours. If the voice is powered by this ‘centred’ or ‘grounded’ breath, the speaker will be engaging the whole body and not be merely a ‘talking head’. Without this grounding, the speaker will be more likely to throw the chin forward, collapse at the chest, round the shoulders or to disconnect from their physical self. This disconnection will make the voice sound higher and thinner and make the person look ‘needy’. We are drawn towards people who seem comfortable in their own skins and any tension or neediness that is seen in a speaker is unlikely to come across as appealing.
As a voice coach, I wouldn’t recommend trying to acquire a husky voice. It is often the sound of vocal damage and a breathy voice pushed over a distance can lead to voice problems. And yet we cannot deny the appeal of this husky or breathy quality on film. Marilyn Monroe is the classic example of this kind of voice. (Perfectly caught by Michelle Williams). She has one of the most imitated of ‘sexy’ voices. Think of her singing ‘Happy Birthday Mr. President’ and you capture this breathless, vulnerable, childlike voice. The singer appears aroused and capable of arousal. Blossom Dearie, the jazz singer, is another example of this breathy quality and many jazz singers, like Cleo Laine, Eartha Kitt, Amy Winehouse and Joss Stone, sing with a husky quality to their voices. Mariella Frostrup has a husky voice and is in great demand for her voice quality. Judi Dench, whilst her voice is flexible and clear, has a heart-stopping crack in her voice from time to time and many, many successful female movie actors over the years have had elements of this quality.
During sexual excitement, it may be that vocal folds become swollen due to increased blood supply or hormonal changes. Or perhaps the excited, clavicular breath rasping across the larynx prevents the vocal folds from meeting completely. Anyway, it seems the breathy, husky or cracking voice evokes pleasurable memories of the voice of passion to the listener.
The male version of this quality would be the famous rasp of Rod Stewart and Louis Armstrong or the raw, edgy sound of many pop singers and adopted by some female singers – Janis Joplin being a famous example. Here, the lack of constraint to the sound adds a danger, which excites the listener even as it disturbs the conscientious voice coach.
A lower pitch is another voice quality associated with sexuality. When working in film, I am often asked by directors to ‘make the voice lower’ particularly in the case of women. The idea that a woman’s voice should be low has been with us for as long as writers have documented attitudes to voices. Shakespeare famously described Cordelia’s voice as ‘ever soft, gentle and low’. (Which, if it relates to pitch, means the boy player would have to have passed puberty!) The voice tends to lower in pitch naturally with relaxation. Perhaps this is another reason why it is easier to listen to a lower voice.If the speaker is relaxed, we relax.
We respond very well to the lower male voice too – think of Robert Mitchum, Marlon Brando, Humphrey Bogart, Sean Connery, John Hurt, Russell Crowe and Daniel Craig. They all have bass, resonant and, sometimes, husky voices. One explanation that has been offered for this is that it may imply the man is stronger and therefore, when hunting was the norm, a better provider. As well as the lower voice imparting a sensation of ease in the listener, we also seem to associate resonant lower pitched tones with truthfulness and depth of emotion.
We seem to find foreign accents sexy. French and Spanish, especially, seem to rate highly with British men and women as sexy. We like to hear Antonio Banderos (even choking on a hairball), Yves Montand or Gerard Depardieu. In the list I was asked to choose from for the television programme, I wasn’t surprised to find Gina Lollobrigida and Brigitte Bardot. Apart from the obvious sexuality of their appearances, they also had the exotic appeal of a foreign accent. Greta Garbo, Marlene Dietrich, Penelope Cruz and many other female performers for whom English is, or was, a second language have exploited this appeal. Perhaps when heard in a new accent, words strike us as newly-minted. We hear language freshly and with a new energy.
Some listeners respond to a carefully articulated British accent (especially the Americans) – for example Angelina Jolie’s accent as Lara Croft or the precise articulation of Alan Rickman. The highly rated Joanna Lumley uses a warm, rich, slightly breathy voice, which also has extreme clarity of diction. We are drawn to voices that carry the melody and strength of a Celtic accent like Scottish, Irish or Welsh. This has been an undoubted part of the success of, say, Sean Connery, Anthony Hopkins or Colin Farrell. Regional accents slip in and out of being ‘sexy’ as we come to associate them with particular charismatic performers.
But any voice can be a ‘sexy’ voice. Many higher, clear or light voices have been part of a charismatic persona. And we are also getting use to a less articulated way of speaking that implies relaxation through casualness. True vocal attractiveness comes from a well-produced, flexible voice with a natural warmth and richness. In the end, a voice does not have to be husky or deep to be sexy. But is does need to be an easy, comfortable well-produced sound that ‘suits’ the speaker’s physicality. It is unlikely to be tense or constricted to be rated as attractive. It has to have ‘the ring of truth’ and to be perceived as the ‘true’ voice of the speaker. It is, therefore, unique.
And incidentally, no-one in the TV programme’s chosen list of sexy voices that I was asked to choose from had a nasal, or an abnormally high pitched voice and both of these qualities are rated as the most unattractive in research.
One of my first jobs, newly out of drama school, was acting in the film, ‘Cromwell’. The star, Richard Harris, deliberately made himself hoarse by yelling in an old quarry to give himself a rasping voice. But I wouldn’t recommend this! You need to find your own star quality voice without having going to these damaging lengths.
Good voice work – warm ups and cool downs and knowing why you need to use the words you speak will bring out the best in your voice – for any occasion!