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Masked Voice Syndrome

As an early adopter of the face mask during this pandemic, I’m fairly tolerant of the minor inconveniences that wearing them entails. One of the big ones for me is the whole glasses misting up fiasco - which has occasionally caused me to bump into people in the supermarket. So much for social distancing!

I have a nice collection of masks now - some of which are home made, and actually quite stylish! People’s attitude to mask wearing often seems to reflect their broader approach to life. I have a very nervous neighbour who is absolutely terrified of catching Covid 19. She will go to extraordinary lengths to avoid any kind of direct human contact. Last Saturday I met her in the street, on her way to the supermarket. We were on a moderately busy road - so there was a bit of background noise. I simultaneously nodded to her and pulled away (almost stepping into the path of an oncoming car) - but it seemed she wanted to ask me something. I could tell by the slightly panicky look in her eyes - and a sort of muffled, anxious whine coming from behind her mask. Or rather “masks” - for it seemed multiple masks were needed for an excursion to the fetid viral swamp that is Waitrose! It was of course, impossible to understand a single word she was saying....

Being a bit of a voice person, I pride myself on my relatively good diction and ability to project my voice. However, since the introduction of face masks, I too, on occasion, have become someone that other people struggle to understand! I’ve tried speaking more loudly - but somehow that just doesn’t work. I produce a voluminous sea of unintelligible droning, shapeless tone...

During the lockdown, I’m lucky enough to be bubbled with a very distinguished audiologist. I was asking him about the whole face mask palaver and how it affects his patients. Face masks filter out high frequency sounds (high pitched sounds to you and I). These are sounds of 2kHz and above. In terms of spoken English, sounds in this range are the consonants like p, t, k, s, sh, f, th - voiceless plosives and fricatives. Whilst they may not be the loudest and longest sounds we make when speaking, their contribution to our actual understanding of what is being said is enormous! Although they contribute less than 20% of acoustic energy output in our overall speech, it seems they contribute at least 80% to our actual understanding. Ok - I’m not a speech scientist and these figures may be a little “general” - but you get the idea!

It seems that hearing aids are now so sophisticated that they can deal very precisely with these lost frequencies. The Australian National Acoustics Laboratory has produced an algorithm that can be applied to individual hearing aids to boost the volume of these high frequency sounds, restoring the balance of energy for the wearer! This effectively unmasks the speaker - at least in acoustic terms. Of course that doesn’t help with the issue of lip reading - which it seems many of rely on, whether we realise it or not.

So - face masks filter out high frequency sounds... High frequency sounds have a short wave form and don’t travel as far as low frequency sounds. Think of the booming sound of the bittern - that travels miles over the flat marshes: a fine example of how low sounds can travel long distances. Actors in a theatre trying to make their voices cary need to think about this. It’s all very well doing lots of “voice” work - developing your resonance and tone - but if your consonants let you down, what’s the point? The audience and the playwright demand more than a sea of unshaped tone, no matter how beautifully resonant - or far reaching - that tone might be.

As someone who’s trained actors I’ve always felt a bit embarrassed about making them work their way through lists of articulation exercises. Maybe in class I should simply make trainee actors wear a face mask? This will have the effect of filtering out the short range, high frequency sounds that make them intelligible - the very sounds that don’t travel to the back of the auditorium. Which raises an interesting question: When live theatre eventually resumes, will all that struggling to be heard through multiple layers of fabric have improved the overall clarity of actors in live theatre - or will all that sitting at home, mumbling into a microphone, have had the opposite effect?

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