What Makes A Voice Sexy, Anyway?

Hinge’s new voice prompt feature has us wondering.

For 27 blissful hours in the fall of 2020, I listened to Barack Obama narrate his latest memoir, A Promised Land. I don’t normally gravitate toward audiobooks, but the moment I learned it was Obama himself doing the narration, I downloaded the Audible track faster than you can say “my fellow Americans.” I’d be lying if I said I listened to Obama’s book for any other reason than this: His voice is incredibly sexy. The man could be speaking about the most mundane minutiae of governing, and I’d still be ready to go all Phoebe Waller-Bridge in the Fleabag pilot — and no, I will not be elaborating further (IYKYK).

I’ve never been able to identify what, exactly, makes Obama’s voice so hot. Is it the undeniable confidence? The self-deprecating humor? The commitment to affordable healthcare? It’s hard to put into words what constitutes a sexy voice, let alone how to emulate one. But ask anyone you know, and they’ll likely give you a shortlist of certain voices that inexplicably do it for them. Take Scarlett Johansson, for example, whose hot voice was the star of an entire movie (see: Her); or Penn Badgley, whose hot voice in You led some thirsty viewers to conveniently forget he plays a serial killer; or Idris Elba, whose hot voice (and overall hotness) needs no explanation.

As much as I loved hearing Obama gently tell me about his presidency for 27 hours, his voice tragically will never be the one I hear most often — that’s typically a spot reserved for our partners. How someone sounds can significantly impact our romantic interest in them, which is why Hinge’s new voice prompt feature marks a big moment for online dating. While it’s not the first dating app to include audio capabilities — others like Grindr and Bumble allow users to send direct messages via voice note — it is the first to put a vocal recording front and center on a user’s profile, meaning that potential matches can hear your voice before they decide whether to strike up a conversation.

The new feature has been met with a dose of healthy skepticism on TikTok, as users who are also on Hinge have started recording the most absurd voice memos they’ve come across. They range from one man asking potential matches to call him “daddy” to another singing “The Lion Sleeps Tonight” with reckless abandon. The randomness is enough to make you wonder… Wait, what’s the point of this feature again? Is having a hot voice now just another requirement for getting a date? What if I hate how I sound?

If the idea of prepping your own rendition of a Lion King number for public consumption makes you want to throw in the towel, know this: There’s actually something to be said for hearing someone’s voice before you meet them. Research shows that the human voice is a powerful tool for attraction, and experts say that it could ultimately change the online dating experience for the better — that is, if you know the recipe for piquing someone’s interest with your vocal cords.

What Makes An Appealing Voice Prompt?

Voice contributes to the overall vibe someone gives off, or they way they present themselves to the world, and that’s one aspect of attraction that tends to get lost when you’re dating online. Swiping through profiles, you get a small snippet of what a person might be like, but you’re missing out on so much of what makes them a real (and potentially hot) human being. I can’t tell you the number of times I’ve shown up to a first date, only to be surprised when the person's energy was completely different than I expected.

Logan Ury, Hinge’s director of relationship science, tells Bustle that the company’s internal polling played a role in the adoption of the new feature. “52% of Hinge users said that listening to a voice message would allow them to learn more about a potential match than merely looking at text and images on a profile,” she says. “Voice prompts allow users to check in with themselves early on about how the other person makes them feel, whether that’s chemistry, confusion, or disinterest.”

If psychological research is any indication, there’s truth to this idea. According to Cate Madill, Ph.D., speech language pathologist and associate professor at the University of Sydney in Australia, there’s an evolutionary nature to the way we perceive the human voice. “The voice is our ometer,” she tells Bustle — our instrument for measuring and communicating emotion. It helps us express our feelings, wants, and needs, even dating back to our infant days, when dramatic wailing was the only way to get other people’s attention. “The sound of the voice will convey how we are to others — alert, energetic, low-energy, anxious, [or] depressed,” Madill says. And this, in turn, plays into how we might interpret someone’s vibe, even on a subconscious level.

If you’re someone who loves recording voice memos to send to their friends instead of texting, you’re already attuned to this dynamic. Maybe you do it because it’s easier for someone to pick up vocal cues when you’re speaking to them, making it less likely that they’ll misinterpret your words. If someone texts you, “I’m busy this week,” it comes across differently than if they record a voice memo telling you the same thing. Using audio titrates up the intimacy of an online conversation.

Michi Santana, 27, who lives in Brooklyn and hosts a sex and dating podcast called Bitchwick, says she loves the way the voice prompts give you a sense of what it might be like to hang out with someone IRL. “It adds a sensory experience to something that is very 2D,” she says. While she has yet to be wowed by a voice prompt while swiping, Santana recalls seeing a Hinge voice prompt someone shared on TikTok that intrigued her. “He had a very silky, sexy, lower voice,” she says. “He introduced himself, the things that he liked, and what he was looking to provide to a partner.”

It was the openness, combined with a mysterious yet flirty tone, that made her want to learn more. “I think that's what makes a good voice prompt, it's allowing someone to see your personality,” she says. The idea, Santana thinks, is that you want to “leave the mind lingering,” so your potential matches can’t stop replaying your voice in their heads. Having a level voice and demeanor might even help people feel more inclined to trust you — research has shown that subtle cues such as short sentences or a sharp uptick in pitch can signal dishonesty, and vice versa.

On the other hand, Katherine Fung, 25, says she clicks on Hinge voice prompts the minute she sees them — but more for entertainment than anything else. “I live for the voice prompts, not in an ‘I’ve finally found my match’ way, but I always stop on a profile and play the sound if I see one,” she tells Bustle. “I guess I like them in the same way people like to watch trashy reality TV. I don’t think a single voice prompt has ever convinced me to like someone — usually it deters me,” Fung says, recalling the time she encountered a yodeler. “But I’m here for the laughs!”

The Voice Informs Our First Impressions

There are also plenty of social dynamics at play in how we perceive the human voice, many of them rooted in gendered and racialized stereotypes. “The sound of the voice has a social function,” Madill explains. Research dating back to the 1980s established two main components around how we perceive the human voice: First, there’s the idea of dominance, something often tied to traditional masculinity. “A lower voice generically is perceived as being more dominant or having more power — male or female,” she says. And yet, a higher female voice has tended to be judged as more appealing, at least to a certain extent. Madill recalls a 2011 study in which female voices up to 280 Hz were perceived as progressively more attractive, but anything higher than this got a lower attractiveness score — potentially because a voice with too high a pitch could indicate youth and immaturity.

“Recording those Hinge voice prompts, maybe as silly as it sounds, makes me feel [that there] is a femininity about me that people cannot deny simply because I'm Black.”

Second, vocal cadence and speech patterns are influenced by the people around us, creating what Madill calls a sense of “solidarity” with people whose voices sound familiar. This can lead to linguistic profiling, the practice of categorizing someone in a certain group because of their voice — and part of why BIPOC folks often resort to code-switching in different social scenarios.

Santana, who is Black, often gets mistaken for a white woman by people who hear her voice without seeing her. “Growing up, I was always told that I had a very ‘pleasant’ voice, and sometimes I would get the very racist comment of, ‘you sound like a white girl,’” she says. When recording her own Hinge voice prompt, she saw it as a way to combat a stereotype without having to do repeated emotional labor. “Recording those Hinge voice prompts, maybe as silly as it sounds, makes me feel [that there] is a femininity about me that people cannot deny simply because I'm Black.”

Perhaps the reason these voice prompts are garnering so much attention is because the bad ones can get — well, really bad. “The way that people have been answering the questions in general says a lot about them,” Santana says, especially when they say something that sounds self-important or out of touch. “It's one thing to write out something that's arrogant or insensitive or tacky, but it's another thing to actually record it, play back your own voice, hear that in real time and think, ‘That's good. Yeah. That sounds great. Really love it.’” A voice memo isn’t just an offhand comment — it’s an intentional choice of how you want to come across to a potential match.

It’s also important to note that preferences vary greatly from person to person, so what one person wants to hear might be completely different from another. “The vocal capabilities, dominance and solidarity preferences, and the masculinity or femininity of the listener all affect their perception of vocal attractiveness,” Madill explains. “Then add the inferences we make about the pitch of the voice regarding physical appearance (e.g. the lower the voice, the taller the person) and how we interpret the words and language an individual uses, and the more complex the ‘recipe’ for attractiveness becomes.”

How To Record A Hinge Voice Prompt That Isn’t Cringe

You’ve probably seen some memorable examples of how not to record a voice memo by now — maybe steer clear of the sexual noises — but what about how to do it well? Madill thinks that more than anything, it comes down to being yourself. “Don’t try to sound a particular way in the hope of sounding more attractive,” she says. In other words, don’t try to lower your voice, change your accent, or strain for a rasp that isn’t there. No one likes photos that are obviously staged, and the same is true for voice memos.

Ury also recommends not thinking too hard about it. “Don’t keep re-recording,” she says. “You’ll just start to sound less and less like yourself.” If you want to highlight your sense of humor, go for it. “You’re showing someone what it would be like to date you, a lot of which is being in conversation with you,” Ury explains. And that means trying your best to encapsulate something specific about your personality, whether it’s a surprising hobby or a creative dad joke.

Even if it feels awkward AF to listen to the sound of your own voice played back, it’s worth trying, if only to see how it affects your success with matches. “The voice never lies — it will reveal who we really are eventually,” Madill says. If you’re lucky (like, really lucky), you could strike up a life-changing conversation à la Lauren and Cameron from Love Is Blind — or, at the very least, inspire someone to send back an audible “hello.” It’s better than just typing it out, right?

Studies referenced:

Valentova, J. V., Tureček, P., Varella, M. A., Šebesta, P., Mendes, F. D., Pereira, K. J., Kubicová, L., Stolařová, P., & Havlíček, J. (2019). Vocal parameters of speech and singing covary and are related to vocal attractiveness, body measures, and sociosexuality: A cross-cultural study. Frontiers in Psychology, 10.

Hobson, J. L., Mayew, W. J., & Venkatachalam, M. (2011). Analyzing speech to detect financial misreporting. Journal of Accounting Research, 50(2), 349–392.

Pittam, J. (1987). The long-term spectral measurement of voice quality as a social and personality marker: A Review. Language and Speech, 30(1), 1–12.

Borkowska, B., & Pawlowski, B. (2011). Female voice frequency in the context of dominance and attractiveness perception. Animal Behaviour, 82(1), 55–59.

Pardo, J. S. (2013). Measuring phonetic convergence in speech production. Frontiers in Psychology, 4.


Cate Madill, Ph.D., speech language pathologist and associate professor at the University of Sydney in Australia

Logan Ury, director of relationship science at Hinge