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Timbre in Vocal Performance

by Jeremy Butler

One aspect of vocal quality that actors use in creating a performance is timbre, which is the most difficult to describe. Timbre is the tonal quality of a sound. Aside from being high or low, soft or loud, is a sound harsh or mellow or nasal or smooth? In short, what type of tone does it have? The harsh, nasal tone of Maggie Wheeler contributed to the annoying nature of Janice in the Friends episode discussed in Critical Commons clip—just as a similarly voiced Fran Drescher used her voice in The Nanny (1993–99). Sharon Gless’s throaty delivery underlines the sexual potential beneath the police detective exterior of Chris Cagney (Cagney and Lacey [1982–88]). Different tonal qualities convey a myriad of connotations within our culture. To describe them all would be nearly impossible, but still, the analyst needs to remain alert to them.

In this scene in which Cagney is on a date, note how she speaks the line, "So, ah, basketball scholarship, first marriage..." The start of that line illustrates her unique timbre as she says, "So, ahhh."

Vocal Performance in "Cagney and Lacey"

Sharon Gless's performance illustrates how timbre is significant in vocal performance.

from Cagney and Lacey (1982)
Creator: Filmways Pictures
Distributor: CBS
Posted by Jeremy Butler