Developing public debate about the human voice
Submitting InstitutionLondon Metropolitan University
Unit of AssessmentCommunication, Cultural and Media Studies, Library and Information Management
Summary Impact TypeCultural
Research Subject Area(s)
Language, Communication and Culture: Cultural Studies, Literary Studies
History and Archaeology: Historical Studies
Summary of the impact
Anne Karpf's book, The Human Voice (Bloomsbury, 2006), has
prompted wide-ranging, national and international public discussion on the
role of the human voice today. The study has been published in the USA
(Bloomsbury USA, 2006), and translated into German (Luebbe, 2007), French
(Autrement, 2008) and Japanese (Soshisha, 2008). Positive reviews have
appeared in numerous publications, including The New Yorker and
the Times. Karpf has subsequently developed the book's ideas in
symposia held in Paris, Stockholm, Rome, Oslo and London, in numerous
articles and broadcasts for diverse outlets (including an-hour long BBC
Radio 4 programme) and a full-page feature in the Guardian.
The Human Voice challenges the orthodoxy (Derrida's phonocentrism
notwithstanding) that the human voice plays a less significant cultural
role than text and image in post-oral societies. It argues, instead, that
the human voice remains at the centre of interpersonal and cultural
communication, even if we lack a shared public language through which to
articulate this. Based on 50 interviews conducted in the UK and USA
(between 2003 and 20006), Karpf's study develops an accessible public
language through which the important role of the human voice can be
discussed, and it raises awareness of the many ways in which what appears
to be a `natural', genetically-determined instrument is, in fact,
culturally and historically constituted. Karpf's work also challenges a
counter-trend — the `idealisation' of the human voice, characterised by
the widely-disseminated research of Albert Mehrabian, who attempted to
quantify the percentage (38%) of verbal message communicated by the voice,
and whose findings have become an oft-repeated part of popular discourse.
Karpf highlights the shortcomings of Mehrabian's methodology, along with
that used by other researchers who filtered out individual differences
between voices and voice-listening skills.
Karpf proposes that the voice is a medium through which we perform gender
and that, as women's social roles have altered, so too have their voices.
In the paper titled 'Spoken Like a Woman?: From Prejudice to Androgyny in
the Public Voice' (delivered, at Universite Paris-Diderot in 2012 and
subsequently published in an anthology), Karpf suggests that while
research shows that women's voices have deepened over the past 40 years,
and the voices of public men are expected to be more expressive, the voice
has not become `ungendered'. Rather, what is required of the voice has
become more complex. In her 2013 paper, 'Speaking Sex to Power?: The
Female Voice as a Dangerous Instrument' (delivered at the 'Vocal Folds'
symposium organised by Her Noise in Oslo), Karpf traces the historic
tendency to equate women's voices with an erotic power that needs to be
policed. Karpf developed this theme in her 2013 BBC Radio 4 programme on
the broadcast female voice — 'Archive on 4: Spoken Like a Woman' — which
chronicled the historical exclusion of women from the airwaves.
Alongside this work, Karpf also developed a critique of oral historians'
nervousness around the disembodied voice. This theme was central to a
keynote address, 'The Human Voice and the Texture of Experience',
delivered at the 2009 Oral History Society conference held in Strathclyde.
Here, Karpf argued that the rush to transcribe recorded testimony was
indicative of a longstanding tendency to devalue the instrument through
which oral historians gather their material. In 2011, in a seminar
organised by 'Media and the Inner World', Karpf applied psychoanalytic
theory — specifically Donald Winnicott's concepts of holding and
transitional space, and Esther Bick's theories of containment — to
listeners' relationships with the voices of regular radio presenters. Her
paper was subsequently published in a special edition of The Radio
References to the research
- Karpf, A., The Human Voice (London, Bloomsbury, 2006; paperback
2007). Also published in the USA (New York: Bloomsbury USA, 2006).
Translated into German as Frauen reden anders, Manner auch
(Berlin, Luebbe, 2007). Translated into French as La Voix: Un univers
invisible (Paris, Editions Autrement, 2008). Translated into
Japanese (Soshisha, 2008).
- Karpf, A., `C'est bien une femme qui parle": du préjugé à l'androgynie.
La voix dans la sphère publique', in Bernon-Gerth, A.M. et al (eds), Les
Medias a l'Epreuve du Reel, (Paris, Editions Michel Houdiard, 2012).
- Karpf, A., 'The Sound of Home: Some Thoughts on How the Radio Voice
Anchors, Contains and Sometimes Pierces', The Radio Journal, Vol.
11, No 1, April 2013.
- Karpf, A. (2013) 'Speaking Sex to Power: the Female Voice as a
Dangerous Instrument', paper given at 'Vocal Folds', a `Her Noise'
symposium, Oslo, http://www.nymusikk.no/?p=6789
Details of the impact
Karpf's research on the human voice has generated considerable debate
about its important role in diverse settings. The beneficiaries of her
work have been both professional voice-users and the general public (her
book was discussed by a wide range of websites, phone-in callers and
reviewers). The impact of her research is indicated in four ways:
Firstly, the four foreign editions of The Human Voice and its
recent publication as an ebook demonstrate the international interest
generated by her study. She drew on extensive scholarly research and made
it accessible, reaching wide and varied readerships and stimulating lively
online debate from a diversity of bodies, including the European Institute
of Brand Management (www.eurib.org/fileadmin/user_upload/Documenten/PDF/Personal_branding_ENGELS/w_-_The_human_voice__EN_.pdf),
the British Voice Association (www.britishvoiceassociation.org.uk/books_TheHumanVoice_AnneKarpf.htm),
a Huffington Post blog (www.huffingtonpost.com/jane-g-goldberg-phd/importance-of-mothers-voice_b_899514.html)
and Polish television.
Secondly, the book was serialised in the Guardian, and was
reviewed in the Independent, the Sunday Telegraph, the Guardian,
and the Sunday Times, as well as many foreign newspapers and
magazines, including The New Yorker.
Thirdly, Karpf's many broadcasts dealing with her research generated
discussion about the role and importance of the human voice among many
different constituent groups. She appeared on `BBC Breakfast' on BBC1 (http://news.bbc.co.uk/1/hi/programmes/breakfast/5359618.stm),
and in 'The Voice', a BBC Four documentary (broadcast four times in 2008)
on why the synthesised voice sounds unnatural, as well as in an Australian
documentary on the human voice broadcast on the European arts and culture
channel, Arte, in 2013. On radio she discussed her research on BBC Radio
4's 'Start The Week', Radio 3's `Night Waves' and over a dozen phone-in
programmes in the USA, Australia and New Zealand. In 2012 a half-hour
interview with her about the voice was broadcast on the Australian network
ABC's national radio programme `Lingua Franca', and she discussed
intonation with Stephen Fry on his BBC Radio 4 programme 'Fry's English
In 2013 she talked about women and radio on the South African radio
network SA FM, while she also wrote and presented an the hour-long BBC
Radio 4 programme on the history of women's voices on radio and television
— 'Archive on 4: Spoken Like a Woman' — which was listed in the Radio
Times' `Top Tip of the Week' and its `Critics' Choice' (www.radiotimes.com/episode/twhbv/spoken-like-a-woman).
The Controller of BBC Radio 4 chose it as `Documentary of the Week' for a
Radio 4 podcast and it was also selected for permanent presence on
Finally, Karpf developed her ideas about the voice in many different
symposia and events. These included 'La Voca Humana', a seminar held at
Roma 3 University, Rome (October 2006); the seminar series 'Our Speaking
Selves' held at the ICA (2009) (www.ica.org.uk/19587.twl);
a lecture (now a podcast), `Bellowed Endearments and Echoes of Resistance:
How the Voice Bonds and Unbinds in Smadar Dreyfus's "Mother's Day"',
delivered at Magasin 3 Gallery, Stockholm (2009); and `The Right to
Silence' symposium (chaired by Karpf) organised by Electra (a London-based
art organisation) at The Showroom gallery (2012)
Testimonials from the Artistic Director of the Norwegian organisation
nyMusikk and from a well known writer, broadcaster and Professor have
corroborated the impact of Karpf's research on the gendered voice on radio
professionals, arts practitioners and broadcasting policy; her work
prompting a redress of discrimination against the female voice. The
Artistic Director of nyMusikk reported that Karpf's `Her Noise' symposium
in Oslo `gathered much attention and Anne's talk was especially well
received' and, following the event, `a number of organisations approached
the Norwegian Arts Council and the Cultural Department to highlight the
discrepancy of female to male composers and songwriters. After many
meetings, funding was awarded for projects aimed at redressing the
imbalance' (Testimonial from Artistic Director of nyMusikk, 2013).
According to the writer, broadcaster and Professor, `Anne's work
certainly had a sociological impact (it is now difficult, if not
impossible, to debate the voice as a communicative medium without hearing
her work invoked), but [it also had considerable impact] in awakening
radio professionals to the relationship between gender and voice ... In
recent years the debate about the role of women in the media has come, in
one form or another, to dominate the headlines. Anne's work not only
informs this important debate, but has directly influenced the behaviour
of media decision-makers. It has had a very real and very productive
impact upon the nature of radio talk' (Testimonial from writer,
broadcaster and Professor, 2013).
Karpf's research on the human voice led to a £7,000 grant by the
Winnicott Trust to research Donald Winnicott's BBC broadcasts, 1943-62.
This resulted in an Institute of Historical Research seminar (2013), and a
BBC Radio 4 'Archive on 4' programme — 'From Donald Winnicott to the
Naughty Step' — which Karpf researched and presented.
Sources to corroborate the impact
- `Lingua Franca', ABC programme, Australian radio,
- Lecture and podcast on Smadar Dreyfus, Stockholm,
- Maître de Conférences honoraire en Etudes Anglophones — Sciences de
l'Information et de la Communication, Universite Paris-Diderot Paris, 7:
organiser of seminar in Paris 2010, and co-editor of Les Media a
l'Epreuve du Reel anthology.
- Testimonial from Artistic Director of the Norwegian organisation
nyMusikk, which organised the 'Vocal Folds' hernoise symposium in Oslo,
2013 (available on request).
- Testimonial from Creative Director, BBC documentaries and Features, and
producer of BBC Radio 4 programme, 'Archive on 4: Spoken Like a Woman'
(available on request).
- Testimonial from writer, broadcaster and Visiting Professor, Birkbeck
College, University of London, familiar with Karpf's work on the voice
over a long period (available on request).