Harsh is large: Nonlinear vocal phenomena lower voice pitch and exaggerate body size

Research output: Contribution to journalArticle


A lion’s roar, a dog’s bark, an angry yell in a pub brawl: what do these voca-lizations have in common? They all sound harsh due to nonlinear vocal phenomena (NLP)—deviations from regular voice production, hypothesized to lower perceived voice pitch and thereby exaggerate the apparent bodysize of the vocalizer. To test this yet uncorroborated hypothesis, we synthesized human nonverbal vocalizations, such as roars, groans and screams, with and without NLP (amplitude modulation, subharmonics and chaos).We then measured their effects on nearly 700 listeners’ perceptions of three psychoacoustic (pitch, timbre, roughness) and three ecological (body size, for-midability, aggression) characteristics. In an explicit rating task, all NLP lowered perceived voice pitch, increased voice darkness and roughness, and caused vocalizers to sound larger, more formidable and more aggressive. Key results were replicated in an implicit associations test, suggesting that the‘harsh is large’ bias will arise in ecologically relevant confrontational contexts that involve a rapid, and largely implicit, evaluation of the opponent’s size. In sum, nonlinearities in human vocalizations can flexibly communicate both formidability and intention to attack, suggesting they are not a mere byproduct of loud vocalizing, but rather an informative acoustic signal wellsuited for intimidating potential opponents.


External organisations
  • Jean Monnet University
Research areas and keywords

Subject classification (UKÄ) – MANDATORY

  • Psychology


  • body size, voice, acoustic communication, nonlinear vocal phenomena, pitch, roughness
Original languageEnglish
Article number20210872
JournalRoyal Society of London. Proceedings B. Biological Sciences
Issue number1954
Publication statusPublished - 2021
Publication categoryResearch