Timbre | The physical properties which give a voice its grain or singularity, and the ways in which these properties are used, in various contexts, to seduce, inform, sell, convince, reassure, terrorize, imitate or mask oneself.

This collection is split between examples of voices taken as such, in their more or less fantasized natural states, and the perception of timbre as a construction. We will first define timbre as a physiological constant of any voice. However, it is easy to find examples of timbre being transformed and modified. We will mainly focus on the ways in which speakers can modulate certain of their voice’s properties and use timbre as a resource for doing so.

Our first example makes up a collection in and of itself. Actress Amy Walker shows us how a single utterance can be spoken using various accents and vocal modifications. However, we can very clearly recognize the singular timbre of the speaker’s voice being maintained throughout these modulations.

Timbre as singularity

In his performance Deaf Bach, artist Arthur Zmijewski asks deaf people to sing Bach cantatas. Hearing such a choir of dissonant voices gives us the impression of having access to the singers’ intimacies, to the raw sound of their vocal chords.

A voice’s timbre is the result of purely physical, anatomical, and physiological properties. It depends upon the length and thickness of the vocal chords as well as on the specific conditions of their junction. It also depends upon the characteristics of resonant cavities (pharynx, mouth, and nasal cavity). The combination of these various parameters will give each individual a particular timbre based upon the specific characteristics of their vocal apparatus. Of all the other phonic parameters that can be used to characterize a voice (pitch, intonation, accentuation), timbre is the most mysterious, the most irreducibly physiological. In a certain way, it is not a function of the body, but the body itself.

We can thus recognize the timbre of the radio presenter Macha Béranger’s voice on France Inter, Sylvie Caspar’s on Arte, or this little girl’s “from among thousands,” contrary to the “bodiless” voice performing this poem.

Because timbre is hard to define, we often use metaphors to attempt to do so. For example, we say that timbre is a voice’s color. On the other hand, certain voices are said to be flat (or “blank” in French) when whispered, without timbre, as in this excerpt from the show Peter Peter Pet…er!!! Timbre can also be given a temperature, substance, taste, value, shine, and thickness: Macha Béranger and Leona Anderson’s voices have a dark warmth, while Macha Béranger’s voice shares a muted thickness with those of Gaston Bachelard, Leonard Cohen, or Pierre-Alain de Garrigues. The timbre of this ten-year-old child’s voice is thin like David Lynch or Mary Lou Retton’s, which is also soft, or like Didier Gustin’s, which tends to dry up. Both are light like Paul Léautaud’s, like this lady’s, or like Fanny Charmont’s, which shines like Auguste Branly’s, which in turn is sharp like Antonin Artaud’s.

Timbral transformations

As this children’s television show host shows us, radically transforming one’s voice can easily be achieved by inhaling helium.

A body going through changes can find the timbre of its voice modified, sometimes to the point of non-recognition. These changes often mark stages in a process: adolescence, aging, illness, etc. During puberty, for example, teenage boys must learn to manage the air pressure beneath their vocal chords to avoid producing the “caws” that make their voices screech up into high notes. A similar change can be observed in “F to M” transsexuals during testosterone treatments. Here are two states recorded before and after such a treatment.

Of course, timbre also changes with age. Here it can be heard at three different stages of Marguerite Duras’ life: light, then worsened by age and tobacco, and finally after having undergone a tracheotomy.

A simple cold can change a voice’s quality to the point of making it unrecognizable. In a more radical example, this man, who has undergone a laryngectomy, has a voice with a very particular timbre: sounds are produced by swallowing air into the esophagus and reproducing it in the form of “burps,” a technique similar to that used by this ventriloquist. The voice of this child, who has been possessed by a demon and sounds like a strangled puppet, or the voice of this leper, provide us with further examples of extreme timbral modifications.

The glottal channel, one of speech’s primary tools, can be extended by various prostheses that radically modify our perception of a voice’s timbre: megaphones, microphones, not to mention the acoustic specificities of the space in which speech is being emitted. In this example, Pierre Schaeffer shows us how a ribbon microphone can give a voice a particular color. Mixing techniques also allow us to remove or accentuate certain frequencies from a recorded voice, making it deeper, softer or sharper, horrifying or irresistible.

Timbre as resource

It is hard to reduce timbre to entirely physical attributes: as a singularity, a marker of identity, it is also a social construction, a resource that can be put to use and modulated by a speaker to produce certain specific effects within a given context.

Screaming techniques used by the singers of grindcore band Eye Sea show us how one can “get out” of the timbre of one’s voice and modify its body. On the other hand, communication technologies allow us to very lightly play with it, as in this message recorded by a young lady for her lover.

We have already cited the example of Sylvie Caspar’s voice—suave, intimate, and erotic. We also know how news reports, cartoons, gameshows, voicemail, business answering machines, and parisian subway announcements all use timbres skillfully chosen for their more or less reassuring, adventurous, dramatic, serious, or institutional qualities. Advertisements in particular make use of a small number of “timbral characters” that follow fairly rigid codes: fifty-year-old men with virile voices, warm and reassuring, George Clooney-like, a bit rough and guttural, used to sell coffee, perfume, sports cars, or for announcing Sunday evening films on television; “sexy moms” with clear, smiling voices, lightly puffed-up, carried by American intonations, praising shampoo or tissue wipes; casual young men whose voices are rife with hope for the future, their intonations drawling, ready to move in with their girlfriends; falsely mischievous children with slightly sour but enthusiastic voices (see also Te taper les fesses par terre); cartoon characters with voices both unreal and familiar all at once; Black men from the ’90s whose tone is exaggeratedly low and articulated.

It is through this same logic that the depth and “virile” warmth of Michel Sardou’s voice allow him to deal out a couple of very reactionary truths to an audience in a paternalistic tone. We can also see how Bourvil, interviewing himself, uses his voice to construct a certain public persona.

The use of timbre, among other performative strategies, thus enables one to respond to a journalist’s stereotypical expectations, as in this prank, or to parody critics of conservatism during this meeting of the American Republican Party.

This collection also includes a series of imitations: in this history of the anime Dragon Ball told by celebrities, Yves Lecoq mostly reproduces the way that Poivre d’Arvor and Johnny Halliday play with the timbre of their voices.

Timbre “is man (or woman) themselves,” insofar as they let us hear them.

  • 6 dégâts

    Artificial voice, excerpt of a reading by Katalin Molnar at the Centre Pompidou (Paris), 2000.

  • A global citizen of the world

    Commercial for investment opportunities in cyprus real estate development, 2016

  • ABC

    Artificial voice reading the lyrics to ABC by the Jackson 5, 2013.

  • Au-delà de la langue

    Jean-Luc Godard, excerpt from an Intagram live, 2020.

  • Bare helt utenfor meg

    An account, excerpt of the radio documentary Et Godt sted by Gyrid Listuen, NRK, 2007.

  • Blessed

    Family conversation, recording by Ese Brume, 2013.

  • C'est fini

    Excerpt of the show Peter Peter !!! by Stéphanie Chêne, 2006.

  • Ça m'arrive à moi

    Michel Sardou, excerpt of the show T'empêche tout le monde de dormir, M6, 2007.

  • Cantata BWV 78

    Deaf-mute people performing a Bach cantata, excerpt of the recording Deaf Bach by Artur Zmijewski, 2003.

  • Carte Noire

    Pierre-Alain de Garrigues, radio commercial, the 2000s.

  • Ce jour entre les jours

    Gaston Bachelard, excerpt of an interview with Pierre Schaeffer, Radio Télévision Française, 1940s.

  • De bonnes mœurs

    Paul Léautaud, excerpt of an interview with Robert Mallet, Radio Télévision Française, 1951.

  • Demandez le programme

    Opéra Bastille usher, recording by Olivier Normand, 2013

  • Des silhouettes dans la pièce

    Excerpt of the show Le Troisième Quart de Siècle, Radio Canada, 1975.

  • Desyat' obez'yan

    Excerpt of a video for learning how to count, Russia, 2013.

  • Down to the pit

    Leonard Cohen, excerpt of the documentary If It Be Your Will by Kari Hesthamarn, 2006.

  • Est-ce que vous avez rêvé ?

    Nicolas Bouvier, Pierre Stucki, excerpt from the scientific show Dimensions, RTS, 1975.

  • Et comment ils sont cons

    Jean-Marc Lebihan, excerpt of a performance at the Aurillac Festival, 2013.

  • Éveeuu

    Elissa Knight, Ben Burtt, excerpt from the film WALL-E by Andrew Stanton, 2008.

  • Even oysters have enemies

    Jack Nicholson, excerpt of a speech at the ATI ceremony, 2010.

  • Fejn gejt qalla

    Gamer commenting on his game, 2014.

  • Flash Gordon

    Hervé Bernard Omnes, excerpt of the documentary Flash Gordon, 2000s.

  • Fraisi Poney

    Fanny Charmont, radio commercial, the 2000s.

  • Free you know spirit

    Excerpt of the show Lynch+Sound by Jeanne Robet, Arte Radio, 2007.

  • Get it Maggie

    Conversation with a piglet, YouTube video, 2009.

  • Getting fit 'n having fun

    Marie-Lou Retton, excerpt of Fantastic Family Fitness Fun Session, 2007.

  • He , abaliva !

    Carlo Bonomi, excerpt from the serial La linea by Osvaldo Cavandoli, RAI, 1971.

  • He hadn't been there before

    Cathy Berberian, excerpt of the piece Recital for Cathy by Luciano Berio and Kurt Weill, 1968-1972.

  • Hold & Release

    Pierre Raymonde, excerpt of Erotic Aerobics by Pierre Raymonde and Bugs Bower, 1982.

  • I'm not happy with you

    Dialogue between parents and a child, YouTube, 2013.

  • Is it physical

    Jeff Buckley, excerpt of an interview in Paris, 1990s.

  • J'ai appris hier

    Antonin Artaud, excerpt of the radio performance Pour en finir avec le jugement de dieu, recorded for the RDF (but never broadcast), 1947.

  • J'me sens de plus en plus seule

    Alexandra Viau, excerpt of Alexandra, une lettre d'amour audio by Alexandra Viau and Cédric Chabuel, Arte Radio, 2003.

  • Je m'appelle Sylvie Caspar

    Sylvie Caspar, excerpt of Sylvie, la voix d'Arte by Sylvain Gire and Christophe Rault, Arte Radio, 2002.

  • Je sens ton souffle

    Jérémie Covillault, excerpt from the film Le Hobbit : un voyage inattendu by Peter Jackson, 2012.

  • Kom nå da

    Woman speaking to a goat, excerpt of a recording by Jeanne Robet, 2007.

  • La cigarette des papes

    Friends having a conversation, personal recording, 2016.

  • La pilule anti-odeur

    Excerpt of the show Le Troisième Quart du Siècle, Radio Canada, 1975.

  • La pomme-frite classique

    Claude Vega, excerpt of an impression of Louis de Funès, 1950s.

  • La voix mystère

    Didier Gustin, excerpt of the recording La Voix mystère, 1989.

  • Le cri qui va dedans

    Eyesea, excerpt of the a cappella version of “Phobohunt,” YouTube, 2009.

  • Le shaga

    Marguerite Duras, excerpt of an interview with Lucien Attoun, 1968.

  • Ma voix coronavirus

    Message posted on WhatsApp, 2020.

  • Ma3ame3 A3maki

    Poetry reading on Egyptian television, 2012.

  • Mademoiselle

    Arletty, excerpt of the show Le jeu du téléphone, 1960s.

  • Microphone à ruban

    Pierre Schaeffer, excerpt of a demonstration, unknown source.

  • Moi, je suis Cooky

    Philippe and Cooky, excerpt of a ventriloquist comedy sketch, unknown source.

  • Monster

    Nicki Minaj, excerpt of Kanye West’s album My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy, 2010.

  • Notre conversation quotidienne

    Excerpt from Clémence reprend la ferme, Les Pieds sur Terre, France Culture, 2021.

  • Omaewa mo shindeiru

    Excerpt of the cartoon Hokuto no Ken, episode 1, TV Asahi, 1984.

  • One day I was baking something

    Excerpt from the testimony of a person with Huntington's disease, 2016.

  • Patronne de la radio

    Auguste Branly, excerpt of the boxset Pierre Schaeffer: 10 ans d'essais radiophoniques 1942-1952.

  • Pizza Hut

    Advertisement for a pizza chain, unknown date.

  • Plus vite que la musique

    Mohamed, excerpt of the show Gym Direct, D8 TV, 2014.

  • Qu'est-ce que j'fais ici ?

    Exorcism session, excerpt from a video posted on YouTube, 2011.

  • Sangoku

    Yves Lecoq, excerpt of the performance Un homme public by Philippe Parreno (Frac Bourgogne collection), 1994.

  • She can talk

    Excerpt from The Simpsons, episode 4, season 2, 1990.

  • Statistica !

    Scene from a classroom in Bulgaria, 2013.

  • Sto telos, mia apati

    A leper’s account, excerpt of the film L'Ordre by Jean-Daniel Pollet, 1974.

  • Takigawa Kuristeru desu

    Christel Takigawa, Japanese advertisement for Panasonic, 2013.

  • There was a lady

    Charles Hartshorne, excerpt from an interview, 1983.

  • They wanted the vote for all women

    Excerpt of a demonstration of the “Tadoma speechreading” method for the hearing and visually impaired, Sensory Communication Group at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, 2011.

  • This is Ethan

    Transgender person before and after a testosterone treatment, edit based on two videos posted on YouTube (2003 and 2008).

  • Those bad hard drugs

    Mel Blanc, Bugs Bunny anti-drug campaign, 1970s.

  • Timeless town

    Leona Anderson, excerpt of the album Music to suffer by, 1957.

  • Tout le monde boit

    Michel Daedern, excerpt of an interview, 2007

  • Trembler devant le fantôme

    Gerrit Graham, excerpt of a bonus DVD from The Phantom of the Paradise by Brian De Palma, 1974.

  • Tu vois le gros cube

    Julie Bataille, radio commercial Eau Ecarlate, années 2000.

  • Un petit galet

    Little girl reciting a poem, excerpt of the show Le Troisième Quart de Siècle, Radio Canada, 1975.

  • Una especie de tinta negra

    Excerpt of a ASMR meditation sound session, YouTube, 2014.

  • Una voz muy colocada

    Alejandro Jodorowsky, excerpt of a demonstration, YouTube, 2012.

  • Une énorme boule de feu

    Maurice Serfati and Henri Virlogeux, excerpt of the recording L'Étoile mystérieuse, 1962.

  • Une petite audition

    Françoise Rosay, excerpt of the show Un dimanche dans un fauteuil, ORTF, 1960s.

  • Une sorte de manifeste

    Brigitte Fontaine, excerpt of the nightly news hour, France 3, 2009.

  • Une voix œsophagienne

    Excerpt of an interview with a man having had a laryngectomy, unknown source, 1960s.

  • Vividly imagine

    Recording session for a hypnosis CD, 2010.

  • Vos chemins de traverse

    Macha Béranger, excerpt of the opening credits to Allô Macha, France Inter, 1977-2006.

  • Votke see koer ara

    Protests of a man forced to the ground by the police, YouTube video, 2014.

  • We call this a capitulation

    Excerpt of the online TV station, 2010.

  • You are a Republican

    Jonathan Krohn, excerpt of an appearance at the Conservative Action Conference, 2009.

  • You are special

    Excerpt of the show Sesame Street, season 43, episode 12, 2012.

  • Your expectant penis

    Excerpt of the compilation Flexi-Sex, Trunk Records, 1970s.

  • Y’a trop d’émotion

    Rod Paradot, acceptance speech, Césars ceremony, 2016. 

He , abaliva !

Carlo Bonomi, excerpt from the serial La linea by Osvaldo Cavandoli, RAI, 1971.