One of life’s great pleasures is a phone call out of the blue with a familiar voice at the other end of the line.
Even without an identification, the voice is instantly recognizable. How is that so?
Something about human anatomy and nurturing combine to form a unique voice, just like a unique personality, for each of us. And something about the human ear and brain allows others to identify that voice.
That’s true even after decades of not hearing a particular voice.
The phone call in question came from an old hometown friend. We had grown up together, roaming the neighborhood as kids and attending the same schools. Though he has changed physically over time, the voice remains the same — raspy, halting and full of mirth. He was back in his home state from Florida to visit a daughter still in Massachusetts and wanted to drop by for a visit. Right from the initial hello, I knew we would have a fun time going down memory lane, and we did.
My wife not too long ago called an old classmate and roommate who had appeared in the news after 40 years of not having had contact.
With all the voices that this friend had heard over the ensuing years, Nancy’s voice was still imprinted on her brain.
With so many people on the planet, how could there be such variation in voices that others can recognize them so instantly?
The factors must include, obviously, the native language, plus regional accent, family background, the anatomy of lungs and larynx, personal idiosyncrasies and the field size of known voices. There may be some near matches, but for the trained ear, our voice is unique.
Remember that old RCA Victor ad for phonographs with the dog Nipper peering into the gramophone to hear “his master’s voice”?
And does anyone not recognize the voice of a George Clooney or a James Earl Jones in a commercial, even when it is not labeled as such? Obviously the advertisers are aware of this.
One little hitch, or sidebar, to all this is siblings, who share the same genetics and upbringing. Both my wife and I have difficulty distinguishing between the voices of our two grandsons, aged 9 and 8. Which one are we talking to on the phone?
I once read a piece about the special harmony of the voices of sibling musical groups, such as the Everly Brothers or Pointer Sisters or the Jackson Five. Somehow the similarities in backgrounds make for a special blend of voices that reinforce each other in a way that is not matched by unrelated voices.
But other than that and random chance, we are one of a kind. Throw in physical appearance and personality, and the uniqueness is even more special.
For the past few years I have been putting together Powerpoint slide shows of ancestors and offspring. In addition to cradle-to-grave photographs, I have included old film clips, documents, quotations, signatures and, as much as possible, audio clips.
Fortunately, I made a cassette tape recording of my father talking about sports a few years before he died way back in 1974. Descendants will always know how he sounded. “I didn’t know he had such a Massachusetts accent,” commented my older son, who was born just three months before his grandfather died.
I have a more recent video interview with my mother in which she comments on assorted members of the family. The warmth of those insights, in her own voice, will live on forever despite her death in 2005.
For the sake of my wife and two sons, I also made it a point years ago to tape record the reflections of my mother- and father-in-law before they, too, were gone.
This will be much easier into the future with all the cellphone technology, but I have been deliberate in the meantime in putting my older son’s acceptance speech for his grandfather’s induction into the Athol High School Sports Hall of Fame into, actually, both of their biographies, and my younger son’s wedding toast to his brother, again, into both biographies.
As for my grandparents, I have only a cassette recording of my mother’s mother, which has a hint of a Northern Vermont/Canadian accent. I remember my grandfather’s voice and expressions distinctly, but he died before I started recording family history. For my grandparents on my father’s side, I have no recordings and really no voice memories. I would love to discover a long-missing or forgotten clip. Just a snippet would be priceless.
Something in a voice connects us to others in an almost primordial way. It’s probably our most powerful form of communication. That’s what makes the preservation of a voice, whether recorded or in memory, so precious. And the loss so sad.
An acquaintance once commented on the possibility of losing his wife to Alzheimer’s, “All I need is to be able to hear her voice.”
Stuart Deane lives in Newburyport.