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In the pop idiom, there appears to be a significant pattern of successful pop songs having high-pitched male vocals.

Bruno Mars, Michael Jackson, almost all rock songs (FOB, All American Rejects, Red Jumpsuit Apparatus, etc).

Put any of those vocals 1 octave down and it wouldn't be as catchy.

Is there something about the way humans naturally perceive sound that contributes to this pattern?

As commented by @Lee White,

While the perception is indeed subjective (not everybody prefers high voices), this question is about a very clear pattern that may have a scientific explanation. You could ask the same question about instruments: why is the first part generally played by the soprano violins and not by the double basses? Why are there so many more guitar solos than bass guitar solos?

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Please do not close this question. While the perception is indeed subjective (not everybody prefers high voices), this question is about a very clear pattern that may have a scientific explanation. You could ask the same question about instruments: why is the first part generally played by the soprano violins and not by the double basses? Why are there so many more guitar solos than bass guitar solos? –  Lee White Aug 6 at 13:54
    
Unless it's the Bee Gees. –  Lee Kowalkowski Aug 6 at 13:55
    
Is it statistical, or just accidental? I mean, the reason for the success cannot be attributed to vocal pitch alone, surely? –  Lee Kowalkowski Aug 6 at 13:58
    
Absolutely, @LeeWhite, I think at its most basic, this is a question about the relationship between melody, accompaniment, bass and register. –  Bob Broadley Aug 6 at 14:03
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This is very subjective - personally I hate higher pitched singing voices - but I waited until my vote counted as an ordinary vote. I have a feeling that the statistics don't actually match up, anyway - "correlation does not imply causation!" –  Dr Mayhem Aug 6 at 15:33

1 Answer 1

You're right, this is pretty subjective. Loads of great songs use low voices. I don't think higher voices are necessarily "more pleasant" to listen to.

But, you may be right that pop and rock songs use high voices a lot; this is likely to be effective because it raises the melody line away from the pitch of the other instruments, making it easier to hear. Also, when singers use the top part of their range, the extra effort (strain?) adds excitement and emotion to the performance. (This is particularly true in rock and metal.)

Interestingly, there has been research suggesting that we "hear" male and female voices differently. I have not read enough about this to know whether this is simply due to the difference in pitch. For example, this article (which refers to research published in this journal) asserts that men hear male and female voices differently.

When it comes to processing a woman’s voice, they [men] use the more complex auditory part of the brain that processes music [my emphasis], not human voices. But the guys in the study could easily hear and understand other mens voices as speech because that uses a simpler brain mechanism at the back of the brain.

(So, I guess this begs the question: do at least half of us hear higher voices as being more musical? I would need to read more of the research to offer my own opinion.)

As I say, I can't say whether this affects our response to the pitch of vocal melodies in songs (or if it even helps to answer your question!), but it is pretty interesting, I think...

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I read a long time ago that when learning a melody by ear, it's easier to tell if you have learned it correctly by playing it in a higher octave. Maybe something to do with the relative frequencies being "further apart"... –  Lee Kowalkowski Aug 6 at 14:07
    
Let's be honest here, melodic lines tend to be higher than other parts of a musical texture. If you raise it by an octave, it accentuates this. –  Bob Broadley Aug 6 at 14:09
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Exactly, if I have the single note melody for vocals and want to fatten it out on piano by playing it in chords instead (with the right hand), the added notes are always lower than the vocal part, making the vocal line always the highest note of each chord. It only sounds right if I do it this way. So I guess the highest notes in these chords are the easiest to hear/follow. (of course, within the typical boundaries of music and human hearing, very high notes are inaudible!) –  Lee Kowalkowski Aug 6 at 14:22

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