I’m going to preface this with: All voices are beautiful. All voices are valid. There are women with deeper, warmer voices and men with higher, brighter voices. And that’s okay. To complicate things more, every culture experiences gendered voices in their own ways, so what may come across as “masculine” in one culture may be perfectly “feminine” in another. Why? Because these are artificial terms that are constantly changing.
A 1998 study by the University of South Australia compared recordings of Australian women ages 18-25 from 1945 and the early 1990’s. What they found was that the fundamental frequency (average number of oscillations per second) had lowered by 23Hz over the decades, from around A#3 to about G#31. That’s an entire whole tone!
There’s a lot that can be said about why female voices might have dropped over the years – from the fact that lower voices are taken more seriously in capitalist society, to powerful women being called “shrill” all the time (oh and we haven’t even mentioned the fact that these studies and averages are based primarily around white people in the Western World because science comes with its own biases) – but that’s not what you came here for!
The point is, don’t let society tell you how you should act or sound. Like since when have they been right about anything? Cool, thanks!
But hey, we all have our own transition goals, and if voice dysphoria is an issue for you, then let’s get to it.
Pitch isn’t actually the most gendered factor in voices. Here’s the fundamental frequencies for male and female voices:
Male: 85Hz (roughly F2) to 180Hz (roughly F#3)
Female: 165Hz (roughly E3) to 255Hz (roughly C4).
You’ll notice that there’s some overlap between the genders. Not to mention, the mean for male voices is 132.5Hz (roughly C3) vs. 210 (roughly G#3) for females, which is only a difference of 4 whole steps and 1 half step, which is just over half an octave. So pitch isn’t really as big a deal as most people think. Most of what people perceive as masculine or feminine in the voice comes from resonance, which we’ll discuss later.
This is the biggest key to what gives our voices “feminine” or “masculine” qualities. Think of it like with wind instruments: smaller instruments like flutes and trumpets produce brighter, brassier sounds, while larger instruments like tubas and trombones produce warmer, deeper sounds. Even though a trombone and a trumpet can hit some of the same exact pitches, it’ll sound wildly different simply because the air has more space to bounce around inside of the trombone, so it’ll produce a bigger, more “masculine” sound.
Your voice is an instrument. But you can change the shape of it to produce different qualities of sounds, and that’s what we’ll be focusing on here.
Vocal Tract Length – gently place your fingers on your larynx (Adam’s Apple) and swallow. You should feel the larynx move up in your throat. Congratulations, you’ve just shortened your vocal tract length! The trick of course is to keep the larynx raised while speaking, which takes practice. A lot of practice. Make sure you drink plenty of water and take breaks so you don’t wear your muscles down.
A lot of muscles work in tandem to elevate the larynx. Primarily, the muscles around the hyoid (the U shaped bone at the root of the tongue), including the geniohyoid, digastric, mylohyoid, thyrohyoid, and stylohyoid muscles; and the muscles surrounding the pharynx (region of the throat behind the mouth, above the larynx), including the stylopharyngeus, palatopharyngeus, and pharyngeal constrictor muscles.
These muscles automatically constrict to raise the larynx when we raise our pitch. Try singing low and high notes and take note of how the larynx moves around, seemingly on it’s own. That’s because we’ve trained these muscles all our lives to lift and lower the larynx to change pitch. But now we want to train them to lift the larynx without changing pitch.
The swallow practice is the main technique, but pay attention to how the muscles play. Since the suprahyoid muscles partially control the larynx, you can achieve some mild larynx elevation by simply lifting the back of the tongue, which we’re going to do in a later exercise anyway. And because the pharyngeal muscles partially control the larynx, you should be able to achieve some larynx elevation by gently tightening the back of the throat. You should also be able to accomplish the same thing by taking a quick breath in and back (smiling while doing this helps).
So play around with your different muscles. Do base of tongue lifts (up, down, up, down – like your tongue is lifting weights or something) and light pharyngeal constriction between swallow exercises. Gradually, you’ll retrain those muscles to elevate the larynx on command, and eventually it’ll more or less stay elevated.
Head Resonance – Sometimes called “head voice”. This has to do with where in the body that vocal vibrations tend to resonate. There are three distinct spaces where the voice can resonate:
- The Laryngopharynx in the throat (this is often referred to as chest resonance or chest voice because the chest will naturally vibrate if sound is originating from this area, but the sound isn’t actually originating from the chest),
- The Oropharynx right behind the mouth (the oral cavity, or mouth, itself will also vibrate in response), and
- The Nasopharynx right behind the nasal cavity (the nose will also vibrate when this area is engaged).
So when we talk about head voice, we’re wanting to concentrate our vibrations within the nasopharyngeal and oropharyngeal cavities. This can be accomplished numerous different ways. And if you’ve already mastered the larynx exercises from the previous section, your larynx should be too elevated to accomplish much laryngopharyngial vibrations, so you’ve already negated your chest voice!
With your mouth closed, say “mmmmmm”. Feel your lips buzz when you hum? Cool, that’s the idea of head voice. Once you get a feel for it, you can try making a “mmmmmaaaaaaa” sound with your mouth open, focusing your breath at the forward part of your mouth.
This is also known as forward resonance. Basically we’re trying to focus our voice into the forward part of our mouth.
Next, we’re going to work on making our mouths as small as possible. Like we mentioned earlier on, smaller instruments produce brighter sounds. So we want to make our instrument (our vocal anatomy) smaller.
Make the “ee” sound as in “key”. Notice how your tongue is lifted, almost touching the roof of your mouth? Cool. With your tongue sitting higher, your mouth will be smaller.
Make the “ng” sound like in the word “tongue”, and pay attention to how the back of your tongue lifts and your soft palate (the soft tissue in the back of the roof of the mouth) lowers? Now try to especially focus on that soft palate. Go between the “ah” and “ng” sounds. Your soft palate should lift on the “ah” and lower on the “ng”.
If you lower the soft palate and raise the tongue too much, you may get a nasally sound, since air will be partially blocked off from your mouth and will then be focused primarily into the nose. Maybe that’s what you’re going for – I’m not here to judge. Play with different mouth shapes to find the right combination of nasal and oral resonance for you.
To produce sound, the vocal folds vibrate back and forth, running into each other at high speeds. The Open Quotient is basically the amount of time the vocal folds are open within a glottal (vibration) cycle.
When you whisper, your vocal folds tend to remain open for longer during the glottal cycle, whereas when you tense your voice (for instance, when screaming), the vocal folds stay closed for most of the cycle. The vocal folds will contract any time you’re tense though, as tends to happen when hitting notes high in our vocal register. We want to avoid that as much as possible.
Ideally, we want an open enough quotient that our voice is soft and maybe just a little breathy, without being too whispery. We still want a full sound, just without fully engaging the vocal folds.
Let’s try the “Ah-Ha” exercise. Say “ah”, but make it short and abrupt (staccato me some “ah” 1/8 notes, thanks!). Then whisper “ha”. Notice how your vocal folds feel tight on “ah” but loose on “ha”? Now try going back and forth between the sounded “ah” and the whispered “ha”, letting your voice gently glide between the two. That area in between is what we’re looking for.
Let your voice glide from a whisper to a normal speaking voice. It’ll probably sound choppy at first, but keep going back to the whisper and gradually applying more vocal fold compression until you make it a seamless transition.
I know I know. We just spent a whole lesson harping on not constricting things. Okay but hear me out though. The aryepiglottic sphincter (AES) is a muscle situated at the top of the larynx right above the vocal folds. When we tighten this muscle, the space above the vocal folds becomes smaller, creating vocal twang.
1Pemberton, Cecilia; et al. “Have women’s voices lowered across time? A cross sectional study of Australian women’s voices”. Journal of Voice. Vol 12, Issue 2, P208-213, January 01, 1998.