Pitch & Timbre

george-washington-large.jpg - Photograph Source: Public Domain


If you were able to ask George Washington a question, what would his answer sound like?

I wonder.  In portraits his mouth is always closed, due to the state of his teeth.  But according to the head librarian at Mount Vernon, our first president probably had an understated yet firm voice.  Unlike New Englanders, Virginians were soft-spoken.  Intonations came from the throat rather than the nose.  The regional dialect of the time would have included holt for hold, flo’ for floor, holp for help, sho-er for shower, wid or wud for with, and yaller for yellow.

We’ll never know for sure because nobody had a way to record sound in the Eighteenth Century.  The phonautograph, ahead of Edison’s phonograph, made the first recording of a human voice in 1860.  A Frenchman named Edouard-Leon Scott de Martinville found a way to save sound waves forever, in particular a lady singing Clair de Lune, on a turning cylinder.

Lincoln’s first inaugural address on the east side of the Capitol (www.abrahamlincolnonline.org).

In the 2012 movie Lincoln, Daniel Day Lewis probably represented the main character’s speaking voice accurately.  Historians like Harold Holzer agree that it was tenor in pitch.  It carried into crowds; it had a folksy twang; it could effortlessly change to a Scottish accent due to its host’s frequent study of the poetry of Robert Burns.  Abraham Lincoln did not move while speaking, with one observer stating that you could put a silver dollar between his feet when he began, and be able to measure the same distance from it to his shoes when he finished.  By looking at a photographic still of him in his stovepipe hat, one would think he had been a deep and robust bass.

Isn’t that the way it is?  Someone you’ve only seen in a picture sounds differently than imagined, or someone you’ve talked to only on the phone has an unexpected appearance.


I figured Theodore Roosevelt boomed those speeches from the tail end of trains and from tabletops and platforms.  Not so.  Several recordings of them are available on the Library of Congress website.  He almost sounds British to me, and his pitch is pretty high, maybe because it was coming from a pair of very asthmatic lungs.  I know that in person he was warm and personable, for it was said after he met you and shook your hand, you had to “wring the personality out of it.”  When I showed surprise at the sound of the commentary by his daughter, Ethel, in an award-winning film called My Father the President, a park ranger told me her voice was typical of old New York upper class society.

Once I asked an aunt what my grandmother, whom I never got to meet, sounded like.  She thought for a minute.  “Like Lilah,” she said, referring to one of her sisters.  That was a comfort to me.  I knew what my aunt sounded like, so I could imagine what it would have been like to talk to her mother, my grandma.

The average human voice registers 60 decibels.  I can’t resist saying that the Guinness World Record was made by Jill Drake of Kent, England at 129 dB — 30 dB above a jackhammer (She’s a teacher’s aide).  Anything that can’t be classified as pitch or loudness falls into the category of timbr, according to a recently published piece of research.  It’s a mixture of harmonics.  The relationship of bass clarinet:oboe is similar to the relationship of male voice:female voice.

“So, Mr. President: What improvements are you making at the plantation this summer?”

“Wid some holp, we’re painting the sheds yaller, even the flo’s (hesitating), but if there’s a sho-er we’ll have to stop for a spell.  In the meantime, join us fo’ a treat of ow-a own wah a tah mill ians.”

With substantiation from http://www.discovermagazine.com, http://www.smithsonianmag.org, http://www.scratchofficequill.wordpress.com, http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov, http://www.loc.gov.