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Secrets of a Sexy Voice? Tell Me More

When we meet someone new, we're quick to judge: Friend or foe? Bland or bubbly? Hot or not?

It turns out the person's voice is key to that first impression. "Voice is a profound difference between men and women, and it colors every human interaction we have," says David Puts, an anthropologist at Michigan State University. Whether sultry, sweet, shrill or gravelly, a voice conjures up an image of who's talking.

The most obvious difference between male and female voices is pitch -- what we perceive as a high or deep voice. Men, on average, speak almost an octave lower than women. And women (as we learn in the radio story above) tend to say the deeper, the better.

But it's harder to determine what makes a woman's voice appealing to men. Some research shows that men prefer high-pitched female voices, but there haven't been many experiments so far. And there's probably such a thing as too high -- a voice that veers from sweet into shrill is just plain annoying.

In fact, when many people think of a sexy female voice, they don't think high -- they think deep and sultry, like the voice of Kathleen Turner as Jessica Rabbit in Who Framed Roger Rabbit. But Harvard psychologist David Feinberg says that while we might think of Turner's voice as deep, what actually characterizes it is breathiness. Breathiness comes from air whistling through a gap at the back of the vocal cords. The gap is larger in women, giving them a breathier voice. Men might find a super-breathy voice sexy because it accentuates this naturally female trait, Feinberg says.

Men tend to agree strongly about which voices are attractive, says psychologist Susan Hughes of Albright College. But, she says, men have trouble pinpointing exactly what makes them swoon. She and other researchers have looked at what's called "formant dispersion." Our voices each have a variety of "formants" -- different frequencies that we regularly hit while we speak. Formant dispersion describes whether our usual frequencies are spaced closely together (a shrill or monotone voice) or far apart (an NPR host). The broader the range, the "fuller" the voice.

But how exactly do these female vocal qualities -- fullness, breathiness and pitch -- fit together into a sexy female voice? Hughes isn't sure. There's a mysterious vocal quality that men seem to recognize by ear but that is tough to identify using computer programs alone.

What's even stranger, Hughes says, is that both men and women with sexy voices also tend to be more symmetrical and have traditionally sexy body types: the men in her studies tended to have broad shoulders and narrow hips, and the women tended to have hourglass-shaped figures.

In men, these differences could be chalked up to testosterone. During puberty, testosterone helps boys build broad shoulders and big muscles. It also helps lower their voice. Sex hormones may also account for a woman's sexy voice and curvy figure, Hughes says.

And people with attractive voices seem to have more sex partners over their lifetimes, Hughes' research shows. "They're chosen as affair partners more often," she says, "and they'll lose their virginity at an earlier age." It might be that the hormones that caused the sexy voice in the first place also affect sex drive -- or maybe the combination of a sexy voice and a sexy build makes for lots of phone numbers written on cocktail napkins.

So will these findings lead to testosterone injections, vocal training and other drastic attempts to sex up one's voice? Probably not, says Hughes. Attempting to alter your voice could increase your sex appeal -- but it won't turn you into a stud muffin.

Picture Dwight Schrute of The Office with the voice of Barry White. You get the idea.

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Erika Engelhaupt and Adeline Goss