Tuesday, February 24, 2015

Source Memory

A New York Times article (2/15/15, p. SR12) about our relative inability to remember the sources of our memories led me to a few questions. The two studies referenced in the article asked college students to read historical essays and then view movie clips in which the same historical events were inaccurately presented. When tested, the subjects believed a third of the inaccurate "facts" from the movie clips, rather than the essays they'd read. Even though they'd been warned that the films were inaccurate.

The article went on to a discussion of source memory, which is known to be fragile and unreliable. The author, and perhaps the researchers, did not take into account the difference between our emotional engagement in a film vs. an essay that I presume was written for college level students. Such essays are dedicated to presenting data, and they very often deliberately avoid any emotional involvement of the reader, lest the author be accused of being too "popular."

But data by itself seldom has any meaning for us beyond the next exam. Unless it has an emotional component. I'm a footnote junkie. Several decades ago, my college drama textbook said that the French dramatist, Corneille, had left Paris for political reasons and had written nothing after 1650. Those "facts" have since been corrected, but at the time none of the reference books listed in the syllabus contradicted our textbook. There was, however, a footnote that led me to research that period of French history and to discover what Corneille had been writing during the decade that followed his exile. And to a Eureka! sense of discovery. And meaning.

Do we remember only what has meaning for us? Or do we only store retrievable memories that have an emotional component? And what does that tell us about our belief systems?


Tuesday, February 17, 2015

The Power of Silence

Vicki's comment, as usual, is worth a post.

When Vicki pays attention to what her voice is telling her - not to talk - she's right on. Our bodies do pick up on energy that is antagonistic, or self-aggrandizing, or a wall that can't be breached. Silent energy, but nonetheless powerful in it's message that communication is not possible.

Several decades ago I attended a leadership workshop for entrepreneurs where I was stunned to learn that one of my talents was not to talk, but to observe and then summarize what everyone else had said. What? I was a performer, a teacher. I had thought I was failing because I hadn't contributed to the discussion.

As soon as we're enrolled in school, our grades suffer if we don't participate in class discussion. We learn to attach a value to talking, and to believe that we won't be valued in a business meeting, for example, unless we talk. So what a great lesson to learn in that workshop that observant silence was a talent.

Thinking about silence led me to dig up an old article on that subject:

"I'm curious if one can own the silence between songs in a strong way.  To recognize that the silence is good and important.” (A question from the lead singer in a local rock band.)

Most people, not just performers, think of silence as an empty space that has to be filled. Musicians have the opposite problem: the symbols for silence in a musical score are called “rests,” leading us to think that we should drop out, that if we have a whole page of rests, we might as well pick up a book.

Silence is more than the absence of sound. We use “dead silence” to describe a problem with an electronic device, but we also use it to describe a shocked silence or an embarrassed silence. So silence has an emotional content. We differentiate between “a heavy silence” and “a soft silence.” So silence has a discernible density. We can use silence to agree or disagree with an argument or a vote. So silence can have a meaning that is recognizable and recorded in the minutes of a meeting.
If silence has emotional content, density and meaning, then silence is neither a void nor a rest, but a form of communication.
Silence is used as a powerful tool by professionals in many fields. A theatre director may ask the actors to take a “beat” after a line. He intends to use a moment of silence to draw the audience’s attention to the previous line, to make it more important. A film director will often use silence, rather than music, to heighten horror  or suspense. A trial attorney may use a nonchalant silence, implying that she is finished with a witness, before she turns and throws her “zinger” question.

The directors are using silence to heighten the attention of the audience; the attorney is using silence to relax the attention of the witness. Performers can also use silence both ways.

How a performer uses silence is a matter of style. An orchestra conductor may want complete silence before she begins, and will wait and wait and wait on the podium until she can feel that she has it. John Nelson, on the other hand, rushes on stage, picks up his baton, and gives the downbeat, gathering the audience through speed and his own energy.

Some performers will use silence after a song in order to prepare the audience to move from, for example, sadness and loss, to the upbeat song that will follow. Others want to move as quickly as possible into the next number. Still others want to use patter or tell stories to bridge numbers.

Some performers will use silence to release some of the audience’s attentive energy at the end of a set or performance. Others will finish big, with the expectation that the audience’s response will release energy.

Performers can use silence to pick up, hold, and release an audience. They can use silence to communicate with an audience–Pay attention here! or Wait, here comes the laugh line! They can also use silence to gather information from the audience–Is it an uncomfortable silence? Is it an on-the-edge-of-the-seat silence?–and can respond accordingly.

Because silence is a form of communication, both performer and audience can “own” any silence during a performance. But because performance is a specialized form of communication, the audience will be more comfortable if the performer is in control of the silence, is using it with intent.

That intent will determine how “good and important” a silence is.  

Tuesday, February 10, 2015

Another Thought about the Relationship of Voice and Power

Last week I wrote about academic studies that connected male (but not female) low-pitched voices to power, money, and leadership. Here's another thought:

The range of pitches at which we speak is technically determined by the length and thickness of our vocal cords. Longer, thicker cords can produce lower pitches. Young boys and girls speak at about the same pitch level, until boys reach puberty and their vocal cords begin to lengthen and thicken.

I received a note from a kindergarten teacher complaining that my daughter spoke at "too low a pitch." Nonsense. I'm a contralto, her father was a bass so, genetically, it's likely that our daughter's vocal cords were slightly longer and thicker at birth than those of the other girls in her class.       

But there's another element at play here. Children learn to speak, not by imitating sounds, but by imitating the muscle movements of their primary caretakers. I'm a trained singer, so the movements my daughter was imitating when she learned to speak were different than those of her classmates' mothers.

And here we get to the problem in many of the research studies: A well-produced voice is dependent, not on the vocal cords, but on the size, texture, and shape of the resonating chambers of the body. If the body isn't open to the sound waves produced by the vocal cords, the listener will perceive the speaker as having any number of unattractive attributes - shallow, too tightly controlled, narcissistic, are only a few examples. 

How we hold our bodies, our posture, is the physical representation of our emotional state. Our voices are the aural representation of our bodies, and therefore our emotions. If a man walks into an interview with a weak neck (which subconsciously is perceived as subservient), it won't matter a bean how low his voice is pitched. 


Tuesday, February 3, 2015

Voice, Power and Charisma

More studies of the relationship between voice and power have appeared in my study, this time courtesy of a friend who sent me a clipping from The Wall Street Journal ("Hear, Hear! Scientists Map What Charisma Sounds Like," 12/2/14).

Controlling for meaning, and even using recorded speeches in French, Italian, and Portuguese, studies at UCLA found that speakers with lower-pitched voices were perceived by listeners as more powerful. A study at Duke University found that male CEOs with lower-pitched voices tended to manage larger companies, make more money, and hold their positions longer than those with higher-pitched voices.

Women in positions of leadership were not included in most of these studies, although a researcher at Duke reported that young women who adopted a distinctive low way of talking were perceived as less competent, less educated, less trustworthy, less attractive and less hirable.

Dr. Rosario Signorello, who conducted the UCLA studies, came to the conclusion that speakers could be trained to use their voices more powerfully, as singers and actors are trained. He did not, however, recognize in his analogy that the heroes in nearly every opera are tenors, with higher-pitched voices, whom composers have used for centuries to evoke the studies' charismatic traits: dynamic, charming, courageous, convincing, captivating, and visionary. Baritones and basses, men with lower-pitched voices, sing the villain, loser, or father roles. Given that Dr. Signorello used nearly four times as many women as men to rate his speakers' charisma, was the research somewhat skewed by that imbalance? Were the women perceiving the speakers in a fatherly, therefore more powerful, role?

Correspondingly, operatic sopranos, women with higher-pitched voices, are cast as the heroines, with lower-pitched contraltos playing witches, servants, young boys, or mothers. I doubt anyone participating in the study would want to assign any of those low-voiced characters very much power.