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Speech is more intelligible when it is spoken by familiar than unfamiliar people. Two cues to voice identity are glottal pulse rate (GPR) and vocal tract length (VTL): perhaps these features are more accurately represented for familiar voices in a listener’s brain. If so, listeners should be able to discriminate smaller manipulations to perceptual correlates of these vocal parameters for familiar than unfamiliar voices. We recruited pairs of friends who had known each other for 0.5–22.5 years. We measured thresholds for discriminating pitch (correlate of GPR) and formant spacing (correlate of VTL; ‘VTL-timbre’) for voices that were familiar (friends) and unfamiliar (friends of other participants). When a competing talker was present, speech was substantially more intelligible when it was spoken in a familiar voice. Discrimination thresholds were not systematically smaller for familiar compared to unfamiliar talkers. Although, participants detected smaller deviations to VTL-timbre than pitch uniquely for familiar talkers, suggesting a different balance of characteristics contribute to discrimination of familiar and unfamiliar voices. Across participants, we found no relationship between the size of the intelligibility benefit for a familiar over an unfamiliar voice and the difference in discrimination thresholds for the same voices. Also, the intelligibility benefit was not affected by the acoustic manipulations we imposed on voices to assess discrimination thresholds. Overall, these results provide no evidence that two important cues to voice identity—pitch and VTL-timbre—are more accurately represented when voices are familiar, or are necessarily responsible for the large intelligibility benefit derived from familiar voices.


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Holmes, E., & Johnsrude, I. (2021, November 26). Intelligibility benefit for familiar voices does not depend on better discrimination of fundamental frequency or vocal tract length.

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