‘Vocal fry’ makes female singers seem expressive

Low, creaky voice influences listener’s perception of musician

Britney Spears

POP SONG  Some singers, such as Britney Spears, use a technique called vocal fry that could make them sound more expressive to listeners.

Everett Collection/Shutterstock

SALT LAKE CITY— Oh baby, baby. Britney Spears’ famous croak could actually be giving listeners a sign.

Spears’ signature sound, an effect called “vocal fry,” makes female singers sound more expressive, vocologists John Nix and Mackenzie Parrott of the University of Texas at San Antonio reported May 24 at a meeting of the Acoustical Society of America.

Vocal fry is the lowest register of the human voice (SN: 7/12/14, p. 5) and makes a sound so deep that the voice starts to crackle and pop like frying bacon.

“It’s the sound Lurch used to make on The Addams Family,” Nix said. “Youuuu raaaaaang,” he imitated.

But the creaky vocal effect isn’t considered creepy or kooky. In fact, previous research has suggested that listeners find vocal fry annoying — when women speak. Men who use vocal fry are perceived as confident and authoritative, Parrott said.

In music, vocal fry seems to project something different. Nix and Parrott recorded a man and a woman singing snippets of pop and country songs, with or without vocal fry, and then played the recordings for 58 listeners. People tended to rated the performances as more expressive when the female singer used vocal fry compared with when she didn’t. The reverse was true for the male singer.

“There are big gender issues here in the use of fry and the acceptance of it.” Nix said. It’s not yet clear why there’s a gender difference.

Nix and Parrott also found another difference among listeners: Younger people found vocal fry performances more expressive than did older listeners. The music people listened to as young adults could influence their perceptions, Nix suggested. 

Meghan Rosen is a staff writer who reports on the life sciences for Science News. She earned a Ph.D. in biochemistry and molecular biology with an emphasis in biotechnology from the University of California, Davis, and later graduated from the science communication program at UC Santa Cruz.

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