Tenth Brown Bag of the Semester – November 15, 2013

Cornelia Fales, Department of Folklore and Ethnomusicology, Indiana University

The Voices of God

ABSTRACT: In many faiths, believers claim to talk to God through prayer, and when God answers, it is usually in the form of an occurrence, an inspiration, or some other phenomenon of the natural world whose source is attributed to God deductively. In western religions, at least, far fewer believers claim to converse with God. That is, they do not normally expect an immediate, audible response from God, and would probably agree that they do not know what God’s voice sounds like. Yet, when the voice of God or other spirits talks to mortals in media productions geared to a western audience, there is generally a sense of familiarity on the part of listeners, even (or especially) when the divine speaker is invisible, heard but not seen. This paper examines examples of spirit voices in popular media for commonalities in their vocal timbre, for acoustic characteristics that distinguish numinous from human voices, and for vocal characteristics that may contribute to the familiarity they inspire in listener. I will also compare these media samples with several field recordings from ritual contexts that feature the sounds of spirits. Finally, I will hazard a few general interpretations of salient acoustic features, including their special significance to domains of the supernatural whose residents make their presence known through purely audible channels.

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