by Marsha Hunter
Peter O’Toole in Lawrence of Arabia, Wikimedia Commons
Actor Peter O’Toole died a few weeks ago at 81, leaving the world a less mellifluous place. His distinctive voice now can be heard only in film and audio archives. It will not ring out again from the stage of any theater, reverberating in listeners’ ears, sending spines tingling and raising hairs on the backs of our necks. Such sounds, uncontaminated by amplification, are the purest form of spoken communication.
That’s why I’m a big fan of great actors who make a beautiful noise. Spoken language is the heart of what makes us human. O’Toole’s grand speeches from Lawrence of Arabia, The Lion in Winter, and My Favourite Year will always ring in my ears, in all their eccentric glory. O’Toole snarled, bellowed, howled, barked, and sang, an extravagant antihero shouting and cooing his way through a tumultuous career, with almost two octaves of rat-a-tat-tatting vocal fireworks.
That voice is what fascinates me, though many who have written about him since his passing are absorbed by his glamorous, reckless life. I grew up watching him in movie theaters, and I know his sexy, enigmatic persona was alluring. But the sound of his exquisite diction is what drew me in and exposed what The Economist’s Prospero referred to as, “the aural architecture of [Shavian] dialogue articulated with the full rhetorical clash…that besides its musical values had a quality of sheer ecstasy that Mr. O’Toole possessed to a degree greater than any other actor of his time.” He showed us what a beautiful voice can do.
Aural architecture and rhetorical clash. Musical values and ecstasy. How did O’Toole do it?
To say that he was well-spoken is a gross understatement, naturally. British actors are to the manor born in the speech department; throw in Irish blood and you have some of the purest elocution DNA possible. Peter Seamus O’Toole was surely born to speak beautifully—all he needed were teachers to show him how to hone his skills. He claimed in an interview that he carried Shakespeare’s sonnets with him everywhere, and had them all memorized. Listen to this short link to the very end, as he fishes for that last couplet. You can hear the actor thinking, using muscle memory to dredge up the words.
Aural architecture is the sound of words as they create a world. To construct his worlds, O’Toole used consonants and pace, elongated vowels and reverberation. Sometimes he lingered on sounds, and took his time. Sometimes he galloped along, words churning out in a waterfall of speech, thought, and action. There’s your rhetorical clash.
Musical values and ecstasy? Rapture is unleashed in the music of a great actor’s voice, and O’Toole was a model of abandon. The tunes he played, the high notes that echoed, the warmth of lower tones, all combined for the feel of each character. O’Toole’s agony and euphoria had certain sounds that are now part of our collective consciousness. Watch only one or two of his films, and you’ll know that voice anywhere. Its distinctive soundprint is instantly recognizable—and overflowing with emotion.
O’Toole was a tenor, with high notes galore. Early last year I watched two of his movies while sitting at my piano to check his range. Becket, from 1964, also stars Richard Burton, whose bass-baritone was a contrast to O’Toole’s higher-pitched Henry II. The musical contrast was fascinating. O’Toole never descended into the low notes of Burton, and Burton never came close to the ringing high C’s of his co-star. In fact, in my several weeks of research on actors’ vocal ranges, nobody matched O’Toole’s high notes, not even the great Laurence Olivier, who had a similar timbre.
The impetus for delving into actors’ vocal ranges was a lecture I’d heard on legal communication which claimed that engineers use a two-note range when they speak, lawyers use four, and actors use two full octaves. I suspected that these surprising “facts” were invented, and decided to investigate. Having read an ill-informed article in 2012 stating that many women have a much wider range than men—several octaves—I have decided now to fight these wild misconceptions with data. The idea that actors, women in general, or any speaker ever encompasses two octaves is absurd. The human voice doesn’t work that way, as the data makes obvious. The data is musical pitch, which can be written down.
It is fairly easy to obtain data about voices with a piano and a decent sound system connected to your TV monitor or computer. With an ear for music, some pianistic ability, and a basic understanding of musical notation, a large, if unscientific sample can be taken. Coincidentally, while I was comparing vocal ranges across famous actors, Beyoncé lip-synched “The Star-Spangled Banner” at the inauguration, and a friend commented on Beyoncé’s “amazing four-octave range.” Our national anthem is a two-octave song. Beyoncé did not add two extra octaves of melodic ornamentation! Exasperated, I continued my research, expanding to singers as well as speakers. Here are my results.
First, let’s define the data I was seeking. I wanted to discover the musical ranges of voices. Musical ranges are defined by intervals on a musical scale. Musical scales in Western music are comprised of seven notes: A, B, C, D, E, F, and G. The eighth note, or octave, begins the scale again. A pitch that is one octave higher than another is the same pitch, but eight notes above it. Likewise, a pitch one octave lower is the same note but deeper in pitch.
Most people can sing songs that range across one octave. Two octaves cover sixteen notes, repeating the standard musical scale at different pitch levels. Most of us have difficulty singing songs that range across sixteen notes. We don’t have the vocal range. This is why it is so hard to sing “The Star-Spangled Banner,” and why we are impressed when a professional singer nails it.
Speaking and singing ranges of humans encompass monotone (one note) on the extreme low end, up to two octaves plus two or three extra notes for trained opera singers. A few freaky voices in operatic history have stretched to three octaves, all of them sopranos. No human has a vocal range of four octaves, but some celebrities have press agents who claim they do. These press agents are a) willfully lying or, b) ignorant, or c) both.
Monotone voices are rare. I’ve taught one or two in all the years I’ve coached lawyers. Here is what musically notated monotone looks like: Monotone
Monotony is another matter. Speakers with a monotonous delivery suffer from something other than musical limitations. They may speak too softly, fail to emphasize key words, lack confidence, or be unfamiliar with the material they are presenting. Monotonous speech has a limited musical range, usually three or four notes. Here is what a limited musical range of speaking looks like: Limited Vocal Range
The notion—from that lecture that got me thinking about this—that engineers use only two notes is ridiculous. I’ve spent my life with engineers, pilots, and other geeks and wonks who may be judged by some as sterotypically “dull” speakers, but they all use more than a limited range of two notes. I had coffee last week with a dear friend who spent a career engineering radio communications for flight operations, and I guarantee his range of speech is more than two notes. My estimate of his normal range is around six notes, reaching to an octave with occasional outbursts about politics or college tuition. My engineer friend Bob usually speaks within this range: Normal Vocal Range
When I’m not hanging out with aviators, I spend my working days talking to lawyers. Like engineers and other non-actors, lawyers speak in a predictable range of about six notes, with flights of exclamatory vocalizing that exceed an octave. I obtained this data from the many video clips I make of lawyers in my daily work.
Now to actors. Stage actors need a wider range because they generally are not speaking into microphones, though in more and more theaters they are now amplified. TV and film actors do not need a wide range because the quiet, close-to-the-mike speaking techniques they use define the modern style of video and film acting. To see and hear TV actors cope with Shakespeare using their more limited vocal range, I heartily recommend 2012’s Much Ado About Nothing directed by Joss Whedon. It is delightful, but acted without the vocal chops of stage performers whose muscular voices must project with audible resonance to the back row of a cavernous theater.
Classically trained stage actors like Peter O’Toole use a wider vocal range than most people, but not all the time. They, too, range over about six notes for most expression, but they have strong high and low notes in reserve. They can drop down low in their range for effect, or sing out top notes for drama. This is true for female actors, of course. Meryl Streep, Janet McTeer, Dames Harriet Walter or Judi Densch—have speaking ranges of an octave and a half. In all my research, I heard not one actor use two octaves. It is beyond the reach of their speaking voices.
Actors singing musical comedy roles fall somewhere below the two-octave range. When any of us take a big breath and launch into a song, we are capable of a larger melodic range than our speaking voices can provide. Still, there are few musical comedy roles that require a range of two octaves. Composers know better than to write for too wide a range. Too wide a range, and they cannot cast the show. Listen here to Hugh Jackman using less that two octaves as Curly in Oklahoma. It is a wonderful performance, but not because of the range of pitches he sings. It is warm, appealing, interesting, true to the composer, original, and well-sung.
At the extreme—opera—singers must produce about two octaves in performance, but no more. To hear an opera singer using two octaves, listen here. Like Jackman’s performance, it has many fine qualities. A four-octave range doesn’t happen to be one of them.
In opera and musicals, data is easily available because composers write it down for us, artists make recordings, and all of it is quantified. Music is data.
Let’s loop back to vocal ecstasy. Peter O’Toole thrilled us with the sound of his big voice, on stage and film. He could reach into high notes that made us feel his joy, fear, anger, sadness. That generous sound of his, or any actor with a beautiful voice, is a tool in his kit to convince us, to persuade. O’Toole carefully nurtured that sound over a lifetime.
I love big beautiful voices. I’m always on the lookout for them amongst lawyers. My own speaking voice is not particularly pretty, though I pride myself in being loud enough to be heard by audiences. Voices like O’Toole’s remind me of my untapped potential.
What about you? Are you using vocal sound to persuade, counsel, or instruct? What voices do you love?
Thanks to Cori Ellison, Dramaturg at Glyndebourne Opera in England, for a lively discussion of vocal ranges in opera.
Peter O’Toole filmography
Obituaries for Peter O’Toole: The New York Times