A moan of pleasure should be breathy: The effect of voice quality on the meaning of human nonverbal vocalizations

Research output: Contribution to journalArticle


Prosodic features, such as intonation and voice intensity, have a well-documented role in communicating emotion, but less is known about the role of laryngeal voice quality in speech and particularly in nonverbal vocalizations such as laughs and moans. Potentially, however, variations in voice quality between tense and breathy may convey rich information about the speaker’s physiological and affective state. In this study breathiness was manipulated in synthetic human nonverbal vocalizations by adjusting the relative strength of upper harmonics and aspiration noise. In experiment 1 (28 prototypes × 3 manipulations = 84 sounds), otherwise identical vocalizations with tense versus breathy voice quality were associated with higher arousal (general alertness), higher dominance, and lower valence (unpleasant states). Ratings on discrete emotions in experiment 2 (56 × 3 = 168 sounds) confirmed that breathiness was reliably associated with positive emotions, particularly in ambiguous vocalizations (gasps and moans). The spectral centroid did not fully account for the effect of manipulation, confirming that the perceived change in voice quality was more specific than a general shift in timbral brightness. Breathiness is thus involved in communicating emotion with nonverbal vocalizations, possibly due to changes in low-level auditory salience and perceived vocal effort.


Research areas and keywords

Subject classification (UKÄ) – MANDATORY

  • Other Humanities not elsewhere specified
  • Psychology (excluding Applied Psychology)
Original languageEnglish
Publication statusE-pub ahead of print - 2020
Publication categoryResearch