Can we communicate beyond words?


Recently I delivered a sound workshop for the Beyond Words conference in Plymouth.

The conference was a culmination of a two-year longitudinal project exploring how learning music can facilitate communication and wellbeing for those who struggle to be understood in words.

An interesting strand of Beyond Words was the study of non-verbal ways of creativity, dysfluency and the Arts in a post-human world.

Vocal supremacy …

We frequently read about the social construction of a standard for beauty and attractiveness, and most of us are familiar with terms like “body fascism” “lookism” or “the body beautiful”.   However we are less familiar with the social construction of a standard for speech, or as I like to call it “vocal supremacy”.

Gemma presenting her workshop

As well as addressing the social construction of the normative voice, my workshop invited participants to reimagine the non-normative voice in a post-human world.

During my workshop I showed participants  the ‘The Non-Normative Speaking Clock’.

This sound piece  came out of a series of R&D sessions between myself, technologist Lewis Sykes and the Drake Music Innovation Lab North.

We settled on the “speaking clock” – the iconic British Telecom service which began on 24 July 1936 and receives 12 million calls a year – as a classic example of the hegemony of the ‘normative voice’.

The Non-Normative Speaking Clock demo from Lewis Sykes on Vimeo.

Re-imagining such a classic example of the ‘normative voice’ sparked an interesting debate about our rigid notion of fluency.

Historic notions of fluency …

Whilst the origins of language has largely remained a mystery, our ability to communicate with each other, particularly in spoken form, has been perceived to be a principal form of human distinctiveness.   Hence, we have a long history of discrimination against people who lack the capacity of speech.

Within Puritan ideology, for instance, ‘disorderly speech’ was described as being a sign of witchcraft and dissociation with human rationality.

“The bodily process of speaking – that defining human faculty – was perverted and distorted in the most literal, material sense in the ravings of possessed girls. Dramatic physical symptoms revealed that the Devil had invaded the victim’s speech. One victim’s tongue clung to the roof of her mouth, “not to be removed” though “some tried with their fingers to do it.” (Kamensky)

This disconnection with human rationality can also be seen in the way that speech differences have been depicted and treated throughout the 20th Century.

During WW1 stammering men were labeled as weak, effeminate and therefore less than human.  Whereas blocked speech in women was closely associated with violence and unruly political agency.

Today’s expectation to ‘talk normal’ …

In popular culture today we still face harsh judgment about both how we sound (vocal) and what we say (verbal).

This expectation to ‘talk normal’ bears directly on race, class, gender, and queerness.

Researchers from the University of Miami in Florida discovered that political candidates with deeper voices tend to win more votes. And linguists from Sheffield University have come up with a formula for the ideal voice.

So it is of no surprise that there is a growing field of research dedicated to recreating the ideal voice, beyond the realms of reconstructive surgery.

We have the potential to repair, rebuild and stylise our voices and/or create the perfect vocal persona for any device that turns text into speech.

These advances can be incredibly empowering developments for many people.  But do they also unintentionally promote a rather rigid idea of vocal normalcy?

Drake Music’s Associate Musician, Caro Churchill, describes how common it is to cut off the lower frequencies and enhance the high/mid presence frequencies of female vocalists. Yet with her own creative music she feels the fundamental tones of the vocal are indeed fundamental.

“This is the warmth, depth and foundation of my authentic voice and storytelling,” she says.

During my workshop I highlighted how easy it is to manipulate the sound of your voice using very basic audio editing apps, such as WavePad.

Participants were asked to record and then “clean up” their voice using high and low pass filters, noise gates and compression. The results were both funny and alarmingly good.

One participant  managed to create something which almost sounded as though s/he was singing.  Which made me think of people who can sing, but can’t speak.

We can all stand speechless …

Certainly, Beyond Words raised questions about the need for dysfluent and unspoken moments in all our lives.

There are many moments when, for reasons that are not due to impairment, we can all stand speechless. Poet and writer, Lemn Sissay, shared this sentiment in his passionate keynote speech, poignantly emphasizing importance of unexpressed language.

If you enjoyed this blog, please visit for updates about my ongoing sound project #BeyondVocalNorms.

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