The More Familiar a Voice is, The Easier it is to Hear


It takes a lot of concentration to have a conversation at a noisy party or in a crowded store. Sometimes it seems that it is easier to talk to your significant other than to a stranger in those situations. A new study verifies that the familiar voice of a spouse does stand out over other voices, helps sharpen auditory perception and makes it easier to focus on one voice at a time.

“Familiar voices appear to influence the way an auditory ‘scene’ is perceptually organized,”

says Ingrid Johnsrude of Queen’s University, lead author of the paper.

The research team asked married couples between the ages of 44-79, to record themselves when reading written instructions out loud. Afterwards, participants donned headphones and listened to the recording of his or her spouse as it played at the same time as a recording of an unfamiliar voice.

Tell me What I Say

For various trials, volunteers were instructed to describe what their spouse said; while on other trials, to report what the unfamiliar voice said. The aim was to see whether acquaintance would make a difference in how well the participants understood what a voice was saying.

“The benefit of familiarity is very large,” Johnsrude said. “It’s on the order of the benefit you see when trying to perceptually distinguish two sounds that come from different locations compared to sounds that come from the same location.”

Age-related differences came into play when participants were asked to report the unfamiliar voice.

Middle-aged adults seemed to be comparatively proficient at following the unfamiliar voice, in particular when it was masked by their spouse’s voice; in other words they were better at understanding the unfamiliar voice when it was masked by their spouse’s voice compared to when it was masked by another unfamiliar voice.

Organizing Auditory Scenes

“The middle-aged adults were able to use what they knew about the familiar voice to perceptually separate and ignore it, so as to hear the unfamiliar voice better,”

Johnsrude notes.

Performance on these trials went down, though, as the participants went up in age. The older they were, the less able he or she was to report accurately what the unfamiliar voice was saying.

“Middle-age people can ignore their spouse — older people aren’t able to as much,”

was Johnsrude’s conclusion.

As people age, researchers suggest, our ability to use what we know about voices to perceptually organize an auditory ‘scene’ may grow to be compromised.

Although that may make it harder for older adults to pick out an unfamiliar voice, it has a fascinating effect. The relative benefit of having a familiar voice as the target actually increases with age.

“These findings speak to a problem that is very common amongst older individuals — difficulty hearing speech when there is background sound. Our study identifies a cognitive factor — voice familiarity — that could help older listeners to hear better in these situations,”

Johnsrude says.


S. Johnsrude, A. Mackey, H. Hakyemez, E. Alexander, H. P. Trang, R. P. Carlyon.
Swinging at a Cocktail Party: Voice Familiarity Aids Speech Perception in the Presence of a Competing Voice.
Psychological Science, 2013; DOI:10.1177/0956797613482467