Riding the Waves of Vocal Pitch

by Ann S. Utterback, Ph.D. on February 3, 2016

surferI’ve never been on a surfboard, but I know that surfers look for the biggest waves possible. They head for the thirty-foot waves on the north shore of Oahu, and not a calmMt. Lake lake in the mountains.

We do the same thing when we want to express strong emotions with our voices. We go for the highest and lowest pitches we can make.

Imagine you’re recounting to someone that you just won the million-dollar lottery. Your pitch would no doubt be all over the place, wouldn’t it?

Now imagine your pitch variation when you’re telling someone about the death of a loved one. Your pitch would most likely be much more controlled.

Now think about how you’d tell someone about having to sit home all day and wait for a repair person to come. You’d probably drone on about what you did to pass the time.

That last example most likely had you speaking in a voice close to a monotone. By definition, monotone has very little pitch variation. We can compare that to the mountain lake that’s perfectly still.

Vocal pitch range is defined as the number of notes above and below your most comfortable, normal pitch (to find that spot, ck out this post).

We have the ability to go for the highest (and lowest) pitches we can make, much like the big waves a surfer goes for. This gives us the most emotional delivery.

We can also go for very little pitch change, and we’ll be using a monotone.

You can’t have an expressive voice without pitch changes, and the wrong pitch can wreck a good read. Even a limited pitch change (only three notes up and down) can signal an apathetic voice, according to voice specialist, Hilda B. Fisher. To you, three notes up and down might seem like an emotional delivery, but that’s because you may not be using your full range.

Fisher advises that for a good voice you need a minimum range of at least four notes up and three down. Try this simple test to see if you meet this goal.  Starting at your comfortable pitch, say, ” I can make my pitch go up, up, up, up,” raising your pitch with each, “up.”  Now go back to your comfortable pitch and say, “I can make my pitch go down, down, down.”  (Using your hand to indicate the steps up and down may make this exercise easier for you.)  If it was difficult to reach the highest or lowest pitches, you may have a limited pitch range.

There are many exercises you can do to expand your pitch range. Ck out these in a post I wrote recently. Doing exercises to expand your pitch can really improve your delivery.

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