“Actually, there probably never is a raw – or naked – condition of the voice. Even seemingly spontaneous vocal actions like crying, sobbing, laughing, groaning and gasping have their characteristic tonalities and rhythms…Even before language, using the voice to create sound is an intensely styled thing.”
– (Connor 2011)
At the age of 10, Jackie Evancho surprised the audience on America’s Got Talent with her operatic voice. As the body matures and grows, so does the anatomy of the voice. Infants usually have a higher larynx allowing them to drink their mother’s milk and breathe at the same time. New to the world, they have limited control over their own bodies, and so this anatomical fixture prevents them from choking. A high larynx combined with shorter vocal cords makes a child’s voice higher in pitch than that of an adult. As they grow up, their larynx drops and their voice deepens. For children, having smaller lungs and weaker abdominal muscles has restricts their ability to perform the same type of energetic vocal tasks that adults can (Fisher et al. 2016). In other words, it is rare to see young children to perform a heavy rock song or an operatic aria (with Jackie Evancho as one of the exceptions).
Some singers such as Gallant are praised for having the ability to sing outside of the average vocal range of their own sex. Although girls and boys roughly have similar vocal developments in their early years, their patterns drastically diverge during puberty. Males naturally have higher levels of testosterone than females. This hormone stimulates the growth of the male vocal tract, making the larynx a lot larger, and with longer and thicker vocal cords (Fisher et al. 2016). As a result, the average pitch of a normal speaking voice of a grown man is much lower than that of a grown woman – typically by a fifth of an octave (Figure 1). Ignoring normal speech, Gallant happens to be able to sing in the female Soprano range.
In the Blind Auditions, the coaches in The Voice UK were confused of whether the owner of the voice was male or female. Whilst James Byron identifies himself as male, he expresses his style as androgynous. Genetic and hormonal constraints are not the only factors that affect our perception of the voice’s gender.
In transgender therapy, a common method for people who biologically transition to the other sex is through hormonal treatment. So, a male who transitions into a female would take regular doses of estrogen. However, for a naturally male voice that has been through prolonged testosterone exposure, the vocal folds cannot instantly thin to the extent of those of a normal female voice. Additionally, pitch is not the only concern. Speech patterns are gendered as well. Males tend to speak in a monotone voice, and so dynamic intonations should be developed for them to achieve more of a female voice (Sarabia 2016).
Nature and Nurture
Our voices are usually good indicators of identity, especially with age and gender. On the one hand, the voice is an exemplar of how genetic constraints make distinctions between the young and old, and the male and female. On the other, they can also sometimes be red herrings. In the case of transgender speech therapy, we find that adjusting the behavioural tendencies of the voice is just as important as its pre-existing anatomy – this demonstrates the interplay between nature and nurture.
Fisher, J., Kayes, G., Matthews, C. (2016) This is a Voice: 99 exercises to train, project and harness the power of your voice. London: Wellcome Collection.
Sarabia, A. (2016) How the transgender community finds a voice through speech therapy. PBS Newshour. Available at: http://www.pbs.org/newshour/updates/how-the-transgender-community-finds-a-voice-through-speech-therapy/ [accessed 13 February 2017].