Bob Ross has become a pop culture icon through his show ‘The Joy of Painting’. Although he died over 20 years ago, his videos are still wildly popular—in part for their unusually hypnotic sound. There actually is a whole internet culture that has sprung up around this, and, along with Fred Rogers, Bob Ross could be considered an inadvertent forerunner to ASMR. However, Ross’ voice did not have the characteristics that are normally associated with relaxation or trance: it was not particularly slow or low-pitched, although there were a few elements that could make it sound that way. Instead, I have analyzed Ross as though he were a singer and composer, by looking at the elements of his voice and speech that contributed to his famous persona.
The first part of this comes from Ross’ background as a drill sergeant. In a rare interview, Ross described his previous self as “the guy who makes you scrub the latrine, the guy who makes you make your bed, the guy who screams at you for being late to work”. So, in his own words, he spent much of his career learning to use his voice for a given effect. After leaving the military, he famously swore to never scream again. However, it turned out that he could have as much effect by speaking softly as he could by screaming.
Ross did not have a particularly low voice, but there was another factor at play. The vestibular folds, or ‘false vocal cords’, vibrate sympathetically one octave below the pitch of the regular vocal cords. This effect is most famously used by Russian oktavists and chanting Tibetan monks; it contributes to the deep meditative quality of their music. This effect is broadly known as subharmonic singing, because it makes use of harmonics below the fundamental frequency.
When Ross speaks, this subharmonic range is unusually audible. It almost sounds like a second person speaking an octave below him. I am guessing that this was due to a combination of his having a somewhat abnormal larynx and some quirk of the recording equipment that his crew used. Whatever the cause, this subharmonic range contributes to the almost trance-inducing timbre of Ross’ voice
As relaxing as his voice is, the content of Ross’ speech was also important in giving him his unique character. In contrast to what might ordinarily be considered hypnotic and meditative, Ross never actually spoke very slowly. His speech was normally paced—sometimes he even spoke fairly quickly—and he rarely paused for more than a second or two. Significantly, these characteristics are also shared with Tibetan chanting. The cadence of Ross’ speech, however, had more in common with the variety of text-sound music than with the pulse of a Tibetan mantra.
Text-sound composition was briefly in vogue about 40 years ago. Many of the ‘purest’ examples of the form come from obscure Swedish composers and poets, but Steve Reich’s ‘Come Out’ (1966) is a pretty decent, well-known example. In text sound composition, the only element is human speech; so, all musical interest has to come from the various rhythms, timbres, and sounds that a human can produce (or be electronically altered to produce).
In the case of Bob Ross, there are a few text-sound characteristics that contribute to his overall effect. He uses two types of repetition: repetition between episodes and repetition within episodes. Repetition of key phrases between episodes (“beat the devil out of it”, “run all the colors across the screen”, “some of nature’s masterpieces”, etc.) gives him a level of familiarity with longtime viewers. Repetition within episodes (for example, the word “little” comes up a lot) gives cohesion. Ross also has a tendency to make little sound effects with his voice and to click his tongue. These factors give his speech a slightly rhythmic quality, and disrupt the low subharmonic rumble that he is best known for.
With the techniques of music theory, it is plain to see what makes Bob Ross so iconic. He was a painter, not a musician, but through his stint as a drill sergeant he learned to control his voice for effect. The rich subharmonic register of his voice and his use of gentle repetition combine to make an almost trance-inducing program. This is the key to his continued popularity.