Racialized Timbre

Listening to listening with musicologist Nina Eidsheim

Marit MacArthur
The covers of two of author Nina Sun Eidsheim's books side by side

In everyday life and through the mediation of technology, we constantly listen to voices without being able to see the person vocalizing. As a practical matter, we may ask, Who is this? Whether or not we ask the question out loud, we think about it, and other questions ramify from it. Do I know this person? How old is he or she? What is this person’s gender? Race? Ethnicity? Class? Educational background? Is the person a native speaker of this language? Where is he or she from? What does the tone of voice imply about the person’s emotional state? Can I trust him or her? And so on.

For the musicologist and classically trained singer Nina Sun Eidsheim, Who is this? is the wrong question–primarily, but not only, because we so often and with unwarranted confidence answer it in terms of essentialist racial, ethnic, gender, and other categories. That is, distinct sounds made by individual voices are reductively attributed to racial, ethnic or gender differences: “Difference is imagined as race.” Eidsheim frames The Race of Sound: Listening, Timbre, and Vocality in African American Music with a convincing critique of the question Who is this? She calls it the acousmatic question, after Pierre Schaeffer (who derives the root of acousmatic from “an ancient Greek legend about Pythagoras’s disciples listening to him through a curtain”), and argues that it relies on fundamental misunderstandings of the human voice and our own listening practices, particularly in regard to vocal timbre.

And what is vocal timbre? “Everything except pitch and loudness” is Eidsheim’s paraphrase of the American National Standards Institute’s definition. It’s that seemingly indefinable quality that makes the voices of Aretha Franklin, Bob Dylan, Jimmy Scott, Billie Holiday, and Emmylou Harris immediately recognizable, except–and this is a major point of Eidsheim’s argument in The Race of Sound–that the timbre so closely identified with a distinctive vocalizer, such as Holiday, can be convincingly imitated, for instance by a seven-year-old girl of Middle Eastern ethnic background growing up in Norway. More about that later.

Every human being has a unique vocal tract. Its size and length (which correlate with biological sex at birth) help determine the tessitura, or comfortable vocal range, of a given vocalizer, and factors like age and health also have an influence. However, as Eidsheim emphasizes, an individual human voice can be trained to make an almost infinite range of sounds. And if a person of a particular race sounds, to those listening, like an auditory stereotype of another race, he or she may be censured, as when Ralph Nader characterized Barack Obama as “talking white” in 2008. (This is one of the epigraphs to the introduction to The Race of Sound.)

To the acousmatic question, Eidsheim offers three correctives: “Voice is not singular; it is collective”; “voice is not innate; it is cultural”; and “voice’s source is not the singer; it is the listener.” That is, we are all trained throughout our lives, whenever we vocalize and someone makes comments about our voice, to then adjust it to match the culture’s expectations of how we should sound, in Foucauldian fashion–“as a condition of participation in a culture.” As Eidsheim paraphrases James Baldwin, one is always “hearing one’s voice through the ears of others.” If we are always performing for others, then we never simply use our natural voices because there is no such thing as a natural voice unaffected by cultural training.

Why does this matter? When we think of a distinct timbre as an essential quality that can be produced only by a human body of a particular race or gender or sexual orientation–when we believe that only African American women or white gay men can sound like our preconception of what African American women or white gay men sound like–we discount the vocalizer’s stylistic and technical choices as well as the biases and idiosyncrasies of our own perceptions, due in part to the enormous influence of culture, or “entrainment” and “enculturation” in Eidsheim’s terms, on both vocalizers and listeners. The entrainment of vocalizers according to a given culture’s or subculture’s conventions and expectations around voice influences–though it does not determine–each vocalizer’s stylistic and technical choices, as well as our perceptions of the person’s voice. And our confidence in our perceptual, essentialist judgments of voices helps create and regulate musical genres.

Thus when we “reduce [sound] through naming,” measuring each voice against our expectations of what the vocalizer should sound like, we limit our understanding of sound and music–as well as the careers and creative potential of singers and musicians, especially those who challenge racialized and gendered expectations about vocal timbre and particular musical genres. The assumption that race and gender are cultural constructions, not essential identities based in biological difference, is now an article of faith in the academy. But, Eidsheim argues, because of “unexamined listening practices,” many listeners still seem to believe that vocal timbre is an essential, biologically determined, easily detectable quality that correlates with the vocalizer’s apparent race, gender, or ethnicity.

A useful elaboration about the vocal qualities we listen for, cited in The Race of Sound, is drawn from the voice artist and dialect and accent coach Eliza Jane Schneider, who researches voices around the world and has played the roles of eight characters on South Park. Schneider has broken vocal performance into the following parameters: “pitch, tempo (speed), tone, timbre, resonance/vocal placement, rhythm, meter, volume, lilt, emotion, dynamics, timing, breaths, laughs, pauses.” Although some of these parameters, such as resonance/vocal placement and lilt, might arguably fall under timbre, her mere act of naming them can potentially sharpen our perception of what we listen to and for. When we speak or sing or rap, we manipulate all of these parameters with various degrees of conscious control, and when we listen to someone sing or speak or rap, we pay attention to all of these parameters, which arguably matter as much as or more than the words.

The Race of Sound builds on the argument of Sensing Sound: Singing and Listening as Vibrational Practice, and together they make vital contributions to the emerging field of voice studies. Rather than the political and ethical implications of the acousmatic question, Sensing Sound focuses on the phenomenological experience of sound and music. In this focus, it follows trends in new musicology, privileging individual performances and context over the musical score, the traditional object of study. Eidsheim analyzes opera sung underwater, vocalizing that does not engage the vocal cords, and other experimental vocal practices in order to defamiliarize our experience with and reduction of sound to what she calls the figure of sound, which “remains the same independent of [the] listener,” is “static” and “defined a priori” and is “judged according to fidelity to [its] source.” Conversely, she emphasizes that all sound is first and foremost vibration, which means that the material production, transmission, and reception of voices, including in and through our own bodies, exceed the limited roles we assign to audible sound moving through the familiar medium of air.

In Sensing Sound, Eidsheim notes that engaging with sensory studies and materialist approaches has been useful: “This perspective removes perceived barriers between music scholarship and the sciences and medicine. It does not distinguish between production and perception but sees them as creating each other.” Similarly, in The Race of Sound, Eidsheim notes that across the various academic fields that study voice, “considerations of the vocal event have tended to fall into two camps, involving attention to either the measurable or symbolic.” That is, a scientific or humanistic approach is taken to the voice; the former seeks to demonstrate “something about the universality of vocal function,” while the latter focuses on “the ways in which vocal sounds are interpreted.” Her approach insists that “the symbolic and measurable dimensions are never detached; they always already work in tandem with the material dimension,” and in The Race of Sound she draws strategically on scientific, linguistic, and medical research on voice to challenge essentialist readings of timbre, and to refine readers’ sense of voice production and perception.

In an early chapter of The Race of Sound, Eidsheim analyzes formal voice lessons and classical vocal pedagogy as acute illustrations of a general tendency to racialize timbre; in interviews she conducted with thirteen voice teachers, eleven told her “they can always tell the ethnicity of the singer by his or her vocal timbre.” Their views about racialized timbre do not necessarily correlate with or arise from racial prejudice, Eidsheim asserts, but rather rely on belief in the figure of sound. The Race of Sound includes case studies to demonstrate her approach of critical performance practice, as applied to the opera singer Marian Anderson, the jazz singers Jimmy Scott and Billie Holiday, and the creation and reception of racialized voices for the vocal synthesis program Vocaloid. These case studies are unified by her effort “to deconstruct how a given voice is created” by listeners as well as the vocalizer, her emphasis on the style and technique of individual vocalizers over assumptions about their identity, and the failure of audiences to fully appreciate or reward these singers’ talents because of beliefs in racialized timbre and, in Scott’s case, gendered timbre.

Anderson’s career, like those of other African American opera singers after her, was limited in artistic opportunities because of “structural racism.” This included skepticism about whether an African American singer could sing opera at all (a number of critics asserted that as a race, African Americans should stick to spirituals) and the limited number of roles offered to African American singers, usually as exotic or marginalized figures. This last is not surprising, given that the European opera repertoire consists of traditional works composed in the seventeenth, eighteenth, nineteenth, and early twentieth centuries, works that also associate villainy with lower registers, for example, “basses and sometimes baritones, while the hero and romantic lead characters are written for tenors.”

As Eidsheim notes, the conventions of operatic vocal performance are so narrowly defined that it is especially ludicrous that a classically trained singer such as Anderson would be heard racially: “The identification of a person who has mastered Western classical vocal production and repertoire as black requires a very different conceptual process than does the identification of a popular-music singer as a member of a racial category.” Not only that, but as Eidsheim notes, “Research on vocal morphology concludes that there are no more similarities within a so-called racial group than there are between groups.” Anderson, as one of the first African Americans to sing for the Metropolitan Opera, “was explicit in asserting her identity as an artist rather than a political activist,” but her career was continually framed in connection to the Civil Rights movement, and her voice discussed in terms of its supposed racial qualities rather than her remarkable, painstakingly developed style and technique.

The jazz singer Jimmy Scott, who was born with Kallmann syndrome (delayed or absent puberty), had a limited career due to beliefs not only about racialized timbre but also about gender, sexuality, and voice–as well as some very bad luck, such as when an album enthusiastically backed by Ray Charles was recalled because of a legal dispute. Scott’s voice was often mistakenly identified as female, and an early recording was marketed, against his will, as if the singer were female. He insisted that he was a straight man, but was often presented or assumed to be otherwise in his musical career. When he found greater recognition later in life, in a widely celebrated comeback that included tours with Lou Reed, his voice was used to dramatize the angst of a gay character (in Bruce Springsteen’s “Streets of Philadelphia” in the movie Philadelphia), creepily linked with death as he danced alone on an episode of Twin Peaks, and so on. Why could audiences not accept the identity he claimed was his?

Eidsheim shows that Scott’s average pitch and typical pitch range were not unusually high compared to those of contemporary male pop singers, including Marvin Gaye, Smokey Robinson, Frankie Valli, Stevie Wonder, Sam Cooke, and others. In pop music, as Eidsheim points out, both male and female singers inhabit a fairly wide middle pitch range. A crucial distinction is that a number of these male pop singers, mostly black though not all, used falsetto, and Scott did not. Eidsheim argues, then, that “the gender ambiguity through which Scott is perceived is due to timbre, particularly through his failure to exhibit falsetto in the higher register. In other words, a singer can sing in a higher vocal register and signal (black) masculinity by exhibiting the otherness of that vocal register through falsetto. In contrast, Scott sang with great timbral integration, sounding no timbral break into falsetto.” She supports this view with research demonstrating that vocal qualities other than pitch strongly signal a female voice to listeners, usefully reminding us that “for male-to-female conversions, hormone therapy does not alter pitch… . Research on the perception of transgender voices shows f0 [fundamental frequency, or pitch] is only one of many cues on which speakers and listeners rely.”

Though contemporary listeners might well have compared Scott to other black male singers they were familiar with in the genres of ’60s pop and soul, and perhaps would have considered the relative use of falsetto within those genres, it would be interesting also to compare his style and technique to those of other jazz singers. Though not inimitable, he was a singular figure; Scott himself said that he much admired Paul Robeson and Judy Garland when he was a child, and the jazz singers he is closest to in terms of genre and style (and those he influenced) are mostly female. It might also be worthwhile to consider a singer’s age alongside pitch range and average pitch; Stevie Wonder was sixteen and eighteen, respectively, when he released the two songs Eidsheim analyzes for pitch range, “Uptight” and “For Once in My Life.” Male voices typically mature late in adolescence, and can get higher in average pitch as they age; Scott also suddenly grew eight inches taller when he was thirty-seven years old. Eidsheim does not report whether his pitch changed over his career, but it would be interesting to investigate it.

I find it hard to agree with Eidsheim when she writes, “I see Scott as a musician-activist who carries out the micropolitics of voice by bringing unexpected timbral content (non-falsetto) to a form (black masculinity), thereby challenging that form’s very definition.” His beautiful voice and the ways he used it may challenge definitions of black masculinity, but Scott’s lack of adequate agency in his career and control over the terms in which his performances were framed make it hard to see him as an intentional activist. Nevertheless, Eidsheim’s analysis of Scott encourages us to listen to his voice more carefully, to take him on his own terms and recognize the achievement of his style and technique, and to question our assumptions about gender and voice (to think beyond pitch) as well as about racialized timbre.

The creators of the voice synthesis software Vocaloid made the rather comically inept mistake of conflating race with the soul genre, which is typically sung with an American accent. Yes, soul and R&B have been called race music, but when Vocaloid hired two singers, one a black British man and the other a Jamaican woman, they failed to fully consider accent. Though these singers might well be able to sing soul persuasively, Vocaloid asked them to record thousands of individual phonemes, and they did so with their native accents, a discrepancy users of the software picked up on and sometimes heard, oddly enough, as a Japanese influence. In a later version of Vocaloid, users and a singer protested when a cartoon image associated with the singer’s synthesized voice did not look enough like a Latina. Thus racialized timbre haunts us even when the voices in question are not strictly human.

Billie Holiday, who admired Jimmy Scott, is the subject of one of Eidsheim’s most telling case studies. Her voice is so distinctive that she has often been described as inimitable, even in the face of numerous convincing imitations. To my ears, none of her imitators sounds as good as Holiday–there’s some sophisticated criticism for you!–but they certainly do capture aspects of her timbre that many fans attribute, as Eidsheim points out, to her hard life, her sexuality, and her race, making broad assertions that her voice represents the suffering of all black women, rather than attending to her style and technique. To hear a seven-year-old girl raised in Norway mimic Holiday’s timbre is itself an apt counterargument, though the performative astonishment of the judges on Norkse Talenter, on which she did so, bears scrutiny. Yet another reason for impatience with beliefs in racialized timbre is how interesting it would be, with all of these singers, to learn more about their style and technique than Eidsheim has space for, given the case she is making against racialized timbre.

Mentioning Holiday’s collaboration with Lester Young, Eidsheim notes that “in terms of style, Kate Daubney compares Holiday’s singing to instrumental vocalization technique and finds that [her] timbre is comparable to that of the saxophone family.” The comparison of jazz singers’ voices to the tenor sax has become a truism at this point, but Daubney’s observation begins an all too brief section that details Holiday’s style and technique and her development of it in the midst of the vibrant jazz scene to which she belonged, from which she learned, and to which she contributed. Such details ought to be more central to the mythology surrounding Holiday than the fact that she was raped as a child or worked as a prostitute. This is not to diminish the intense emotional power of Holiday’s voice. As John Szwed wrote in his 2015 biography of Holiday, which Eidsheim quotes: “Suffering and pain are neither necessary nor sufficient to produce a great artist.” In the case of African American musicians, prurient fascination with suffering can take the place of respect for and interest in their artistry, and all too often be offered as an explanation for it.

“Listening is not a neutral assessment of degrees of fidelity but instead is always already a critical performance–that is, a political act.” —Nina Eidsheim

So when we hear a voice without being able to see the vocalizer, instead of asking Who is this? we should “listen to listening”: “Listening is not a neutral assessment of degrees of fidelity but instead is always already a critical performance–that is, a political act.” We should ask “who we are,” reflecting on our responses to a voice. What does my characterization of this voice say about me and my culture? Moreover, in Eidsheim’s view, we should endeavor to suspend judgment entirely and dwell in the questions, or “the pause” as she calls it, rejecting the “cult of fidelity,” in which a voice can be measured more or less accurately against a priori conceptions of what that voice should sound like.

Eidsheim’s focus on African American music makes a great deal of sense. The careers of many African American singers and musicians have been curtailed and defined by racialized perceptions of their voices and styles, and, to salt the wound, their carefully developed vocal styles and techniques, and indeed racialized genres of music, have been appropriated to much profit by white singers. But there is a strong case to be made against the acousmatic question in general.

Eidsheim, a woman of Korean ethnic background who was raised in Norway, has a unique perspective from which to analyze the racialized perception of voice. Though she writes in Sensing Sound, “My thinking has also been informed by the contradictory ways my voice has been read, depending on whether the listener has access to visual (Korean) or sonic (Scandinavian accent) cues,” she explains this experience in a bit more detail in her doctoral dissertation for the University of California, San Diego. “In Norway, where I grew up and received my foundational training as a singer, I had participated in master classes offered by well-known American voice teachers. They had been puzzled by this Asian-looking girl who spoke Norwegian and who, to their surprise, possessed a signature Nordic classical timbre. Now, only a few months later, [in southern California], I was being complimented for my Korean timbre.” She was understandably discomfited when a voice teacher she had just met praised her vocal timbre–and then told her that it was due to her “Korean cheek bones.” Like many African American singers, she discovered that her vocal prowess was being attributed, at least partially, to her ethnicity rather than to her years of training. If that moment helped lead to these books, I for one am grateful that Eidsheim listened to herself listening to herself, listened to her voice teachers listening to her, and kept thinking, and thinking, and thinking about it.

People whose voices “are perceived as nonwhite” suffer from discrimination in a variety of contexts, as Eidsheim points out. Linguistic research has demonstrated that the perception of sounds and words in speech can vary based on multiple sociolinguistic factors, including the speaker’s perceived gender, race, ethnicity, national origin, regional background, sexual orientation, and age. Our ears are not infallible, and our ears hear differently, so it is foolish and hazardous to assume that we can confidently answer the question of who is speaking when our judgments may have small and large effects on people’s lives–and even when they don’t. An innocuous case in point illustrates the fact that, at least some of the time, we are definitely not hearing the same sound. “Yanny-Laurel” is a twenty-three-second sound clip that “divided America” in 2018, according to the New York Times, with some listeners asserting that the word they heard was “Yanny” and others insisting that it was “Laurel.” Some linguists speculated that listeners with some hearing loss tended to hear “Laurel,” while those who could still hear higher frequencies heard the same recording as “Yanny. Others noted the importance of the sound quality of the device on which the clip was played, as well as volume and other factors. The article notes, “It is known that some sounds are audible only to people under 25”!

Popular culture today seems conflicted about and fascinated by the question of whether racialized timbre is an essential quality. In the 2018 film directed by Boots Riley, Sorry to Bother You, the voice of the white comedian David Cross is dubbed in for the protagonist Cassius Green, an African American working as a telemarketer played by Lakeith Stanfield, when he uses his “white voice.” This is funny–and it would have been funny in a different way to have Stanfield do his own white voice, à la Reggie Watts, or Jordan Peele impersonating Obama. Conversely, in Spike Lee’s 2018 film BlacKkKlansman, which is based on a true story about a black police officer in all-white force in Colorado Springs, Colorado, in 1979, a black man impersonates a white man on the phone to infiltrate the Ku Klux Klan. As we learn in the movie, one person who believes that the voice reveals “the true nature of the body” is David Duke. And the black policeman tricks him into believing his voice is the voice of a white man.

Eidsheim’s work, which is very important but is sometimes written in rather dense academese, is unlikely to reach a wide audience outside academia. That’s too bad, as it should be required reading in music education—and no doubt it will become required reading in many academic disciplines that touch on voice studies. On the bright side, other than voice teachers (not a minor exception), most of the people Eidsheim cites as believing in racialized timbre are not contemporary music critics or musicologists but music critics from earlier periods, software users, anonymous audience members, children, and so on. The book, forthcoming in 2019, will be linked to a website with audio and video of vocal performances to illustrate Eidsheim’s analysis–a crucial resource, given how difficult it is to describe sound adequately in words, not to mention the interest of comparing different listeners’ perceptions of the same recordings. We can hope that many of us are ready to abandon the acousmatic question and listen to listening, and thereby honor and more deeply understand the style and technique of vocalists, musicians, artists, and composers, whatever genres they choose to follow or transform or invent. I will give one of these the last word.

George Walker, an African American pianist who flourished as a composer after he gave up trying to forge a career as a pianist because succeeding as “a black pianist playing classical music” was not possible in the 1940s, died at the age of ninety-six on August 23, 2018. He was the first black composer to win the Pulitzer Prize for music, in 1996. In 1991, he wrote in the New York Times: “The earliest generation of black classical composers has been succeeded by a larger group of talented craftsmen. Their styles are diverse, reflecting differences in temperament, compositional technique and instrumental signatures. Their common denominator is not a use of black idioms but a fascination with sound and color, with intensities and the fabric of construction. Pretentiousness and bombast are conspicuously absent. And these composers are left to languish.”

Marit MacArthur is the co-author of ‘‘Beyond Poet Voice: Sampling the (Non-)Performance Styles of 100 American Poets’’ in the Journal of Cultural Analytics. She teaches in the University Writing Program at the University of California, Davis and is also co-directing a NEH Digital Humanities Advancement grant. She lives in Sacramento.
Originally published:
October 1, 2018


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