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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."

The Impact of Volume on Vocal Performance

by Jeremy Butler

There are a number of vocal qualities that may be manipulated in the construction of a performance: principally, volume, pitch, and timbre (a French word, pronounced “TAM-burr”). Just as in a musical performance, these qualities may be organized for specific affect. The meanings of volume are varied. Loudness may signify strength, or it may signify shrillness or terror. Softness may signify meekness, or it may signify a control so total that speaking loudly is not necessary. As usual, context determines meaning.

In one clip, David Caruso's performance in NYPD Blue illustrates how he frequently lowered his voice to command respect--whether talking to a hostage taker or to a judge. In contrast, Alyson Hannigan, as Willow Rosenberg, in Buffy the Vampire Slayer relied on soft speech to signify her meek nerdiness. In this clip, she shyly asks the boy she has a crush on if he'll spend time with her. In later episodes, when Willow becomes a witch, her vocal performance transforms.

Vocal Performance

David Caruso's low-volume performance commands respect.

from NYPD Blue (1993)
Creator: Steven Bochco
Posted by Jeremy Butler