Dr Judith Harvey: Who’s speaking?

28th February 2022 by Dr Judith Harvey

Dr Judith Harvey: Who’s speaking?

Soprano Gweneth-Ann Rand knows what it’s like to face voice-threatening throat surgery. Fortunately, the operation on her throat tumour left her vocal cords intact. At a concert she gave last May, after the applause, we in the audience were asked to stay in our seats for a surprise. A woman called Sara came on stage. She put her finger over her laryngectomy stoma and she and Rand sang Sara’s poem ‘Can you Hear my Voice?’, set to music by composer Hannah Conway. Sara felt she not only lost her voice, she lost part of her identity. Could she still express herself? Was she the same person?

Romantic lead? Screen villain? Our voices tell others so much about us. How do we respond to changed voices? To artificial voices? Do you swear at your satnav? Are you irritated by Alexa? Standing on the station platform, how much confidence do you have in loudspeaker announcements?

The BBC R&D unit is creating a library of all the sounds of normal speech. That isn’t straightforward. Give any non-professional a passage to read and it won’t sound genuine. Every patient we see has different ‘normal speech’. So, thousands of sounds must be fed into the sophisticated computer programme which generates an infinite number of words and sentences.

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