BLOOMSBURY £20 (399pp) £18 (free p&p) from 0870 079 8897

The Human Voice by Anne Karpf

When Anne Karpf told people she was writing a book about the human voice, their typical reaction was a prolonged silence. Then they would deny they had given it any thought. And then they would release a stream of observations about voices and their feelings towards them. "It's as if we both know and don't know about the voice," Karpf observes.

It's also as if we don't want to know. For many, perhaps most, our own voices are the ones we least want to hear. The conventional explanation is that we are lulled into a false sense of security by hearing our voices through the flattering insulation of our own bodies, and shocked when we hear them relayed through machines instead. Karpf prefers the Freudian explanation that when we hear our voices we are forced to hear things about ourselves to which we would rather be deaf. Both may be true: the voice is fundamental, intimate and difficult. There could hardly be a better subject for a book.

The pleasure Karpf takes in the voice is sustained throughout like a skylark's exaltation, carrying her through a heroic range of meticulously footnoted reading. She details the physiology of the vocal apparatus, ventures comparisons with other species, dwells upon the role of the voice in the relationships between mothers and babies; she charts the shifts in patterns of speech across time and social space, and comments pointedly upon vocal inequalities between the sexes.

Though her energy appears inexhaustible, her range is not limitless. She says almost nothing about singing, though that is where some of the voice's most remarkable talents are expressed; while her account of a scientific investigation of birdsong reveals misunderstanding (neurotransmitter receptors are not genes) and a more general confusion about what to make of elusive evolutionary hypotheses.

The omission of singing is an understandable decision, for the topic would likely have doubled the size of the book. Had it been included, however, it would surely have been impossible to overlook the significance of the collective voice. Karpf is marvellously attuned to individual voices and their interactions, but seems to hear little of the chants, the cheers and the ritual responses of crowd or congregation that do so much to make human societies what they are. The verse tells the story, but identity is the work of the chorus.

Although chanting may be hard to ignore at the moment, the roar of the political crowd and the sacred intonation of the church are easier to overlook in an age inaugurated by Franklin Roosevelt and his "fireside chats". The age of harangued masses was finally over in 1989 when the crowd answered the Romanian dictator Ceausescu back; political leadership now depends on the illusions of intimacy and personal contact.

Karpf provides fascinating discussions of the vocal styles of politicians - though even she is unable to fathom quite how Thatcher and Blair prospered despite the patently bogus concoctions they used to address the public. Analysis of Thatcher's voice revealed that over ten years "it had been artificially lowered by 60Hz, or about half the normal difference between a female and a male voice". Her freakishly acute Spitting Image imitator Steve Nallon would have been able to meet her half way.

Women's voices appear to have been moving in the same direction. The general rule appears to be that pitch follows power. When talk-show host Larry King interviewed guests of high status, such as Bill Clinton or Barbra Streisand, he shifted his pitch towards theirs. Conversely, lower-ranking guests shifted the pitches of their voices towards his.

Nor is the pressure only on pitch. "Today we're all professional voice-users," Karpf declares. The voice must be as appealing and as attentively polished as the smile. It must be ever ready to present, persuade and perform. Its talents will be developed by the need for it to be as flexible as any other element of labour.

Marek Kohn's 'A Reason for Everything' is published by Faber

Arts and Entertainment
Eddie Redmayne as transgender artist Lili Elbe in The Danish Girl

First look at Oscar winner as transgender artistfilm
Arts and Entertainment
Season three of 'House of Cards' will be returning later this month

TV reviewHouse of Cards returns to Netflix
Arts and Entertainment
Harrison Ford will play Rick Deckard once again for the Blade Runner sequel

film review
Arts and Entertainment
The modern Thunderbirds: L-R, Scott, Virgil, Alan, Gordon and John in front of their home, the exotic Tracy Island

Arts and Entertainment
Natural beauty: Aidan Turner stars in the new series of Poldark
Arts and Entertainment

Oscars 2015 Mexican filmmaker uses speech to urge 'respect' for immigrants

Arts and Entertainment
The Oscar nominations are due to be announced today

Oscars 2015 Bringing you all the news from the 87th Academy Awards

Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

Arts and Entertainment
Lloyd-Hughes takes the leading role as Ralph Whelan in Channel 4's epic new 10-part drama, Indian Summers

TV Review

The intrigue deepens as we delve further but don't expect any answers just yet
Arts and Entertainment
Jason Segal and Cameron Diaz star in Sex Tape

Razzies 2015 Golden Raspberry Awards 'honours' Cameron Diaz and Kirk Cameron

Arts and Entertainment
The Oscars ceremony 2015 will take place at the Dolby Theatre in Los Angeles
Oscars 2015A quiz to whet your appetite for tonight’s 87th Academy Awards
Arts and Entertainment
Sigourney Weaver, as Ripley, in Alien; critics have branded the naming of action movie network Movies4Men as “offensive” and “demographic box-ticking gone mad”.
TVNaming of action movie network Movies4Men sparks outrage
Arts and Entertainment
Sleater Kinney perform at the 6 Music Festival at the O2 Academy, Newcastle
musicReview: 6 Music Festival
Arts and Entertainment
Sleater Kinney perform at the 6 Music Festival at the O2 Academy, Newcastle
musicReview: 6 Music Festival
Kristen Stewart reacts after receiving the Best Actress in a Supporting Role award for her role in 'Sils Maria' at the 40th annual Cesar awards
A lost Sherlock Holmes story has been unearthed
arts + ents Walter Elliot, an 80-year-old historian, found it in his attic,
Arts and Entertainment
Margot Robbie rose to fame starring alongside Leonardo DiCaprio in The Wolf of Wall Street

Film Hollywood's new leading lady talks about her Ramsay Street days

Arts and Entertainment
Right note: Sam Haywood with Simon Usborne page turning
musicSimon Usborne discovers it is under threat from the accursed iPad
Arts and Entertainment
A life-size sculpture by Nick Reynolds depicting singer Pete Doherty on a crucifix hangs in St Marylebone church
arts + ents
Arts and Entertainment
Escalating tension: Tang Wei and Chris Hemsworth in ‘Blackhat’
filmReview: Chris Hemsworth stars as a convicted hacker in Blackhat
Arts and Entertainment

Oscar voter speaks out

Arts and Entertainment
The Oscars race for Best Picture will be the battle between Boyhood and Birdman

Arts and Entertainment
Anne Boleyn (Claire Foy), Thomas Cromwell (Mark Rylance)
tvReview: Wolf Hall
Arts and Entertainment
Tom Meighan of Kasabian collects the Best Album Award
Arts and Entertainment
Best supporting stylist: the late L’Wren Scott dressed Nicole Kidman in 1997
Arts and Entertainment
Dakota Johnson and Jamie Dornan as Anastasia Steele and Christian Grey in Fifty Shades of Grey


Arts and Entertainment
Mick Carter (Danny Dyer) and Peggy Mitchell (Barbara Windsor)
tv occurred in the crucial final scene
Arts and Entertainment
Glasgow wanted to demolish its Red Road flats last year
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    HIV pill: Scientists hail discovery of 'game-changer' that cuts the risk of infection among gay men by 86%

    Scientists hail daily pill that protects against HIV infection

    Breakthrough in battle against global scourge – but will the NHS pay for it?
    How we must adjust our lifestyles to nature: Welcome to the 'Anthropocene', the human epoch

    Time to play God

    Welcome to the 'Anthropocene', the human epoch where we may need to redefine nature itself
    MacGyver returns, but with a difference: Handyman hero of classic 1980s TV series to be recast as a woman

    MacGyver returns, but with a difference

    Handyman hero of classic 1980s TV series to be recast as a woman
    Tunnel renaissance: Why cities are hiding roads down in the ground

    Tunnel renaissance

    Why cities are hiding roads underground
    'Backstreet Boys - Show 'Em What You're Made Of': An affectionate look at five middle-aged men

    Boys to men

    The Backstreet Boys might be middle-aged, married and have dodgy knees, but a heartfelt documentary reveals they’re not going gently into pop’s good night
    Crufts 2015: Should foreign dogs be allowed to compete?

    Crufts 2015

    Should foreign dogs be allowed to compete?
    10 best projectors

    How to make your home cinema more cinematic: 10 best projectors

    Want to recreate the big-screen experience in your sitting room? IndyBest sizes up gadgets to form your film-watching
    Manchester City 1 Barcelona 2 player ratings: Luis Suarez? Lionel Messi? Joe Hart? Who was the star man?

    Manchester City vs Barcelona player ratings

    Luis Suarez? Lionel Messi? Joe Hart? Who was the star man at the Etihad?
    Arsenal vs Monaco: Monaco - the making of Gunners' manager Arsene Wenger

    Monaco: the making of Wenger

    Jack Pitt-Brooke speaks to former players and learns the Frenchman’s man-management has always been one of his best skills
    Cricket World Cup 2015: Chris Gayle - the West Indies' enigma lives up to his reputation

    Chris Gayle: The West Indies' enigma

    Some said the game's eternal rebel was washed up. As ever, he proved he writes the scripts by producing a blistering World Cup innings
    In Ukraine a dark world of hybrid warfare and murky loyalties prevails

    In Ukraine a dark world of hybrid warfare

    This war in the shadows has been going on since the fall of Mr Yanukovych
    'Birdman' and 'Bullets Over Broadway': Homage or plagiarism?

    Homage or plagiarism?

    'Birdman' shares much DNA with Woody Allen's 'Bullets Over Broadway'
    Broadchurch ends as damp squib not even David Tennant can revive

    A damp squib not even David Tennant can revive

    Broadchurch, Series 2 finale, review
    A Koi carp breeding pond, wall-mounted iPads and a bathroom with a 'wellness' shower: inside the mansion of Germany's 'Bishop of Bling'

    Inside the mansion of Germany's 'Bishop of Bling'

    A Koi carp breeding pond, wall-mounted iPads and a bathroom with a 'wellness' shower