Voice Perception: The Listener’s Experience

Heather Bonilha, PhD
Maude Desjardins, PhD

Perceptual judgments of voice quality have gradually become more and more prevalent in the voice field and today represent one of the main components of multidimensional voice assessments. Moreover, perceptual assessment of the disordered voice represents a major area of focus for voice researchers, as demonstrated by the large number of published papers on the subject. For this reason, the term perception is most frequently associated with common clinical instruments to measure the quality of the dysphonic voice, such as the Consensus Auditory-Perceptual Evaluation of Voice (CAPE-V) and the Grade Roughness Breathiness Asthenia Strain (GRBAS) scales. However, it was interesting to note, while working on this special edition, that the concept of perception encompasses a much wider range of assessment instruments and topics, not solely related to dysphonia. Other topics include but are not limited to: the perception of personal attributes and specific characteristics such as age, gender, attractiveness, emotions and alcohol consumption; perceptual features of the singing voice; vocal projection in professional voice users; and the effect of task and setting on perceptual evaluation. These subjects, and many more, were added to this special edition with the goal of presenting different facets of voice perception. Without being comprehensive, this volume is meant to capture a broad picture of the research that has been conducted so far on this matter.

The prevalence of the different topics related to voice perception in the journal’s editions varies considerably throughout the years, revealing scientific advancements and trends in interests within the voice community. In the early years of the Journal of Voice, the number of papers on the perception of the singing voice was abundant. This is not surprising considering that singing features such as vibrato and timbre, by their very nature, are subject to external aesthetic judgements from the audience. The attention paid to the singing voice quality and the perception of its various features is likely to have contributed to the advent of auditory-perceptual judgments of dysphonic voices, and investigations in this area progressively became omnipresent in the literature. Because of the subjectivity of auditory-perceptual judgements, concerns regarding their reliability soon gave rise to a significant body of literature on instrumentation and methodology. Investigators have not only explored different instruments and their content validity, but also the impact of the tasks, settings and raters’ characteristics and training on perceptual measures. A lot of work has been put into creating instruments and evaluation methods that are valid and reliable, and into trying to establish and understand the correlation between perceptual measures of voice quality and objective measures, most particularly acoustic measurements which are the objective correlates of perceptual evaluations.

Curiously, there is an imbalance between the large quantity of papers addressing perceptual judgements of the singing voice and those addressing perceptual judgements of the speaking voice in professional voice users such as teachers, actors, and sports coaches. Even though the aesthetic quality of the speaking voice may not have the same significance as that of the singing voice, listeners’ perception of the speaking voice is relevant for professional voice users. Not only is it important in the evaluation of voice disorders by clinicians, but the impact on the audience, such as school-age children or teenagers, can be significant. Children have played the role of voice raters in only a few investigations, despite the fact that they represent one of the main audiences for dysphonic voices of teachers. This brings about the question of ecological validity of voice ratings: usually made by clinicians in controlled settings, ratings may not be representative of real-world situations, in which speakers are often talking over noise and listeners are people from various ages, education levels, professions, and cultural backgrounds. Some authors have tackled this question by studying the impact of tasks and settings on voice ratings, as well as the influence of raters’ background on their perceptual evaluations of dysphonic voices.

Children have also played the role of subject-speakers for perceptual voice evaluation studies. Interestingly, the question of ecological validity seems to play a larger role when it comes to children, possibly because of the expectation that a child’s environment is often noisy. Research, although relatively sparse, has explored themes such as the impact of background noise on children’ voices and the vocal behaviors in children’s singing versus speaking voice. Children’s voices are usually evaluated using existing scales such as the CAPE-V. In fact, instruments validated to rate the vocal quality of individuals belonging to certain groups or having certain conditions are seldom found in the literature. This is in opposition with the large number of authors that have focused on developing or adapting self-perception questionnaires for different subpopulations.

Nonetheless, auditory-perceptual judgements of voice quality have been used to characterize distinctive groups of patients as well as to assess the effects of treatments on different voice populations. In fact, because perceptual ratings of voice quality are an integral part of clinical assessments, they are discussed in a vast majority of voice therapy studies as treatment outcome measures. For the purpose of this review, only papers with a specific focus on perceptual assessments were included.

The volume contains four general sections: 1) Adults-General; 2) Professional Voice Users; 3) Pediatric Voice; and 4) Specific Conditions. This special edition is meant to depict the breadth of possibilities when it comes to voice perception. Papers were chosen to portray the variety present in the literature and not to create a comprehensive review. We hope that this issue will provide the readers with a widened perspective regarding perception of voice quality and that it will spark reflections on how to integrate these concepts in future work, be it in research or clinical practice.