How we react to vocal fry in music depends on the gender of the singer

Science Friday
A musician in silhouette

Alessia Pierdomenico/Reuters

Vocal fry, a speech pattern that is characterized by a throaty, low register, has become an increasingly popular topic of conversation. That creaky sound can be heard in pop music from artists like Britney Spears and Enrique Iglesias. Unsure of how to create vocal fry? 

“You just have to try talking like a Kardashian and see what comes out of that,” says vocalogy researcher at the University of Texas San Antonio Mackenzie Parrott. 

Still not sure what it sounds like? 

“It’s kind of like Lurch used to sound when he would open the door on the Addams Family,” John Nix associate professor of voice and vocal pedagogy at the University of Texas San Antonia says. 

Nix and Parrots have been studying vocal fry and trying to figure out why the voice technique is used so frequently in certain music genres, and what sort of emotions the technique conveys. 

“Typically in speech it occurs toward the end of a phrase, and some people use it as a way of denoting, ‘OK, I'm at the end of my thought,” Nix says. “But what's interesting is that the pop singers and the country singers are using it at the onset. You know, they're doing it at the beginning rather than at the end.”

Vocal fry is not entirely new to music. Billie Holiday and other legendary 20th century singers used vocal fry when they sang the blues. 

Parrots experimented to try and determine whether listeners thought singing with vocal fry was more or less expressive than singing without it. 

“We played the clips in random order and we had a female and a male singer and they were just asked to rate the expressivity of the performance on a scale,” Parrots says. “We found some pretty interesting results just in our small study. It seemed to be that the listeners rated the females’ performance with vocal fry onsets as being more expressive than her performances without fry onsets. And that was the opposite in the case of the male singer — so they rated his performances that didn't have vocal fry onset as being more expressive than his that did have the fry onsets.”

Parrots and Nix are unsure why there was a difference in the way listeners perceived male and female vocal fry but in the future they want to re-try the experiment with identical pieces of music that have vocal fry inserted or edited out.

The study also found that there was a generational gap in the way listeners perceived the music. 

“It seems like during the 70s and 80s, especially with female singers, you don't hear [vocal fry] quite as much as you do in music from the 90s and the 2000s,” Parrots says. “So we're going to look forward to studying this more in the future and having not only more male and female singers included in our study, but also music from different decades and to see if there's a different correlation between whether maybe people prefer the kind of expression that was used when they were growing up to maybe something that's more popular today.”

Nix and Parrots aren’t sure why vocal fry affects the way people view a song’s expressivity. They have a couple of theories, though. 

“We were talking with a colleague who's a voice teacher out in Los Angeles and she was mentioning, you know, people might use it to be sexy or to be angry," Nix says. “It's also, you know, maybe a way of kind of portraying intimacy or maybe that it's difficult to get these emotions out, like ‘Oh it's hard for me to say that.’”

Want to experiment with vocal fry yourself? Listen to the following two segments and decide which one sounds more expressive. Then click the answer button to find out which uses vocal fry.

This article is based on an interview that aired on PRI's Science Friday.