First writer: Anne Mooney
Second writer: Julia Bennett
Revision Feedback by: Tanya K. Rodrigue, Danah Hashem, Kate Artz, and Megan Grandmont
Edited by: Julia Bennett and Tanya K. Rodrigue

Scholars such as Theo van Leeuwen (1999), Heidi McKee (2006), and Erin Anderson (2014) have positioned the rhetorical function of voice in various ways. Van Leeuwen (1999) has suggested that vocal muscles may tense or relax to achieve different rhetorical effects, evoking particular emotions or situations for a listener. McKee (2006) has argued that meaning comes from both verbal content and vocal qualities, claiming that when listening to a voice, we attend to both the words and “adhere to how those words are said” (p. 340). That is to say that the vocal qualities van Leeuwen has suggested the voice muscles make, including tension, pitch, and vibrato, become as much a part of the voice’s meaning as the words. Further, Anderson (2014) has positioned voice as “a performative material with potential to act and to affect in its own right” independent of the speaker. This vocal materiality, according to Anderson, renders digital voice “a malleable compositional resource” which offers “a range of opportunities for experimentation, disruption, and play.”

Equipped with these various understandings of the rhetorical nature of voice, we spent time playing with voice, exploring its multiple affordances and thinking carefully about its rhetorical potential. We adapted to the constraints we discovered in this play, and later reflected on our work to assess our use of voice in achieving our rhetorical goals.

Being Playful

While voice was a critical element in all of our projects, each of us played with voice in different ways to achieve our individual goals. As we began to experiment, we found that compositional and rhetorical choices emerged as soon as we considered how to approach recording our voices. Though Megan Grandmont cast two actors in her work “Night Visions: An Audio Drama,” she captured the actors’ voices separately to eliminate pressure and awkwardness from recording sessions, thereby leading to more authentic performances. Megan’s preference to record her dialogue alone aligns with Joddy Murray’s (2013) assertion that multimodal (and in this case, audio) composition highlights the importance of emotion in producing non-discursive texts (p. 329). Aware that the believability of Woman’s voice depended on Megan’s own emotions, Megan adjusted her recording conditions in a way that allowed her to deliver an emotional performance without fear of embarrassment.

Further, each of us carefully considered how we wanted vocality to affect our audiences. 
Anderson (2014) has defined “vocality” as “a peculiar category of sound that attends speech but also exceeds it.” While intertwined with “orality (speech) and aurality (sound),” vocality, according to Anderson, is reducible to neither; it conveys emotions, nonverbal sounds, and even bodies in ways that speech and sound alone cannot. The signifying power of vocality stems from the vibrational characteristics of a speaker’s voice. As McKee (2006) has noted, “meaning is carried not solely by the verbal content [of speech] but...also by the vocal qualities” (p. 340). Dan Harris, for instance, made particular use of vocal tension to create sarcasm (van Leeuwen, 1999, p. 131) in his memoir “Dipsticking, Grapefruits, and Teddy,” while Anne Mooney made her voice tremble in “Claimed Experience: Owning the Past” to reflect her character’s fear and anguish (van Leeuwen, 1999, p. 135).

In addition to denoting a speaker’s state of mind, vocality also mediates the audience’s relationship to a voice. In his project “Hit and Run: An Oral History,” Mike Rand recorded his brother speaking in a naturalistic, conversational mode in an effort to evoke a personal connection between the audience and Chris’ story. Chris’ voice varies in speed, pitch, volume, and tension, making Chris and his experience seem authentic, embodied, and relatable to listeners. Kate Artz, too, sought to create intimacy between her voice and her audience in “The Conversation,” but with a different goal in mind. In order to prompt the listener to fill in the other half of the phone call, Kate needed to imbue her piece with a sense of privacy, an indicator that the audience is not meant to hear this call. To this end, Kate kept her voice soft and breathy, both of which, according to van Leeuwen (1999), are associated with intimacy and “confidentiality” (p. 133). Conversely, Julia Bennett wanted her audience to feel disconnected both personally and spatially from the insensitive, chauvinistic voice of the newscaster in “Beneath the Ashes.” Her voice actor, Matt Bounds, used a tense, smooth, and unwavering voice that reveals no feeling and elicits emotional detachment.

Because of voice’s “unique status as a sound produced by and emitted from the human body,” we inevitably imagine a body when we hear a voice—and “we always hear in the voice not just anybody but a particular somebody” (Anderson, 2014). Some of us used voice to establish the identity of that speaking body, creating what Anderson would call “voiceprints” using “distinctive vocal styles.” Anne, for example, used her own voice throughout her narrative, even though the speakers in her piece are younger—sometimes much younger—than she. She did so in an effort to take ownership of her voice, an essential move for claiming her experience of sexual assault. In order to use her voice to depict a younger version of herself, Anne used Audacity to digitally raise the pitch of her voice.

While Anne used voice to signal a particular somebody, Julia used voice to signal a gendered somebody, specifically that of a male. Julia used a male voice to address her interpretation of the newspaper article on which her oral history is based: an overtly sexist account of her grandmother’s suffering that belittled her grandmother and hailed her grandfather as a hero.

While some composers used linguistic vocality in their projects, others used nonlinguistic vocality to achieve their rhetorical goals.
Laughter and crying, for instance, are inexpressible in speech, but still carry meaning. Anderson (2014) has suggested that these and other forms of “non-semantic vocality” produce an almost “incarnate experience” (David Applebaum as cited in Anderson, 2014) with the speaker. Accordingly, Megan and Anne utilized voice’s ability to evoke bodies (and therefore speakers) by including sighs, gulps, gasps, and sobs in their work. Both composers sought to produce an emotional impact on their audience, closing the distance between speaker and listener, by adding these visceral, nonverbal vocalizations.

Being Flexible

As we experimented with voice, we encountered different constraints and challenges, which either led to changes or unexpected outcomes. Anne, Kate, and Dan decided to use their own voices in their projects because they felt they had more control over them. This control, however, burdened Dan with perfectionism. He re-recorded his lines several times trying to achieve the perfect take, a lengthy process that left him with less time to edit and compose his audio memoir.

While using one’s own voice proved challenging for some, manipulating the voice of another faced Mike with a different set of compositional and representational dilemmas as well as ethical concerns. Mike struggled to edit his brother’s voice while preserving the story’s authenticity. While he found it easy to cut filler words such as “like”s and “um”s from his brother’s speech, deciding what other content to remove from the 30-minute recorded interview proved much more difficult. Ultimately, Mike cut some funny anecdotes that he felt were revealing of his brother’s character, but didn’t contribute to the overall story and his particular rhetorical goals. He also chose to remove a great deal of his brother’s reflection on his experience to better allow the audience to make their own meaning and judgments.

Though many of us harnessed what Anderson (2014) would call the “performative capabilities” of digitally altered voices to great effect, Anne and Kate both found that voices can only be manipulated so much before they begin to sound warped or artificial. Anne raised the pitch of her voice in Audacity to make it sound more childlike, but the effect was not as pronounced as she had hoped, as raising the pitch too much caused the voice to sound robotic. Similarly, Kate was unable to create the older-sounding voice she had wanted for her character. She had already passed distorting filters over her voice to make it sound like a phone call, so lowering the pitch of the recording rendered it garbled almost beyond recognition. Ultimately, Kate decided that the phone-like distortion, which set the context of her piece, was more important than conveying her character’s age.

Julia, however, had more success with digital intervention. Originally, she had intended to use the voice of a male friend for the part of the radio announcer, yet ultimately decided, with encouragement from a colleague, to use the voice of a skilled transatlantic voice performer. She connected and collaborated with voice actor Matt Bounds via Reddit. Upon listening to Bounds’ reading, however, she realized that the high quality of the recording betrayed its modernity. With the help of YouTube tutorials, she learned how to diminish the recording’s quality in a way that rendered it more like an old radio recording. This aging effect, she felt, helped to further ground Bounds’ voice in a historical context consistent with the time of the article’s publication.

Being Reflective

After completing our projects and presenting them to our colleagues, we reflected on how our use of voice was effective or ineffective in our projects. 
All of us enjoyed at least some degree of success with our strategic use of vocal qualities to perform emotions, characters, and relationships between speakers and the audience. Both Dan and Mike were able to use voice to build personal connections between the voices in their projects and their audience. The voices in Dan and Mike’s work change in pitch, speed, tension, and volume as they speak, instilling them with a dimension and naturalism that made listeners feel as though the voices were talking to them. This friendly rapport between voice and listener compelled the audience to empathize with both Dan’s baffling experiences during his teacher training seminars and Chris’ moving account of a potentially deliberate hit and run.

Megan and Kate also succeeded in creating intimacy through voice, but the intimacy they created is between the speakers in their audio dramas. In her piece, Megan positioned two organic, highly expressive voices interacting with each other, effectively performing the couple’s relationship with each other and thereby producing a compelling, authentic audio drama.
Kate’s soft, breathy vocality also succeeded in building the personal relationship and confidential tone between her voice and the unheard caller. This confidentiality established the audience as outsiders listening in on this conversation, encouraging them to participate in constructing both the call’s meaning and the unheard voice.

Anne and Julia’s use of vocality to create characters produced mixed results. Although Anne was not able to raise the pitch of her voice as much as she had wanted to without distorting it, the audience was still able to perceive her pitch changes and understood their purpose of performing a younger character. Furthermore, Anne’s tense, shaky voice, combined with her nonverbal sounds of crying and breaths, still proved very effective in emotionally impacting the audience. In order to convey the changing ages of her characters, however, Anne found it necessary to include sound effects in her composition, compensating for the constraints of the digital voice. Julia, whose goal was to distort Bounds’ voice, found it easier to achieve her desired results with digital intervention. The radio static layered over Bounds’ cold, transatlantic delivery established the voice as an old radio broadcast, giving the voice both context and identity. This masculine, emotionally distant voice both personified the news article and built a poignant contrast with her mother’s more personal, emotive voice.


Perhaps our most powerful discovery about voice is its dynamic capacity to create speakers. While voice is not, as Anderson (2014) has said, “a form of direct, unmediated access to the self,” it is “always a voice of a particular kind” (Jonathan Rée as cited in Anderson, 2014). A voice inevitably prompts the listener’s imagination to construct the speaker, including the speaker’s self. The irresistible question of who was speaking shaped our experiences of these projects almost as much as the voices’ vibrational characteristics. Voices reveal emotions, attitudes, and often gender, all of which help the listener invent the speaker as a holistic human being.