Transformation of the voice is an important factor for many trans people. For trans women, one of the most common desires is to understand how to be more feminine mtf. As we dive into this topic, remember that every person has their own idea of what it means to be feminine. We will be discussing the hallmarks of the cisfemale voice, however not every trans person will choose full voice feminization. The voice is a broad and colorful gender continuum, and as you start to explore the possibilities of your own instrument, you’ll find that you have many options. One of the great gifts of trans voice training is that it allows the individual to discover and choose what is uniquely best for them.
What makes a voice sound feminine?
If you were to ask this question to the general public, most people would think that the answer is pitch: Men’s voices sound low and women’s voices sound high. So by these parameters, all we have to do to achieve feminization is speak higher, right? Well, not quite. While pitch is a part of the equation, the feminine voice involves more detail and nuance than just pitch. Now, don’t let this deter you! Rejoice in the fact that the voice is complex. What a boring world we would live in if everyone only sounded low or high. What lies within you is a voice that is indefinitely more interesting, more sensitive, and more you.
Timbre refers to the overall tonal impression that the voice makes. For voice feminization, we do want to raise the overall timbre of the voice, and this is where beginners tend to get confused. Isn’t that the same thing as raising the pitch? Not exactly, and here’s why:
As stated above, timbre is your overall tonal impression. It combines all the various layers of the voice, including pitch, color, and quality. These aspects come together to create gender expression. This is why adjusting pitch alone does not lead to a complete feminine voice. The timbre is largely determined by overtones, which are frequencies of sound that are created when the voice vibrates inside your body.
To better understand this concept, check out the image below. This is a spectrogram, a visual representation of the spectrum of frequencies that are created when we speak and sing. At the top of the image, you’ll see a horizontal axis that shows the passage of time: .5 seconds, 1 second, 1.5 seconds, and so on. On the right side, you’ll see a vertical axis showing the frequency range, which goes all the way from 18k (18,000) hertz, to 200 hertz. A very broad range! If you look closely, you can see the path of the vocalist. They start by holding a steady pitch, then they move higher around the 5-second mark, and then they hold steady again. As you can see, there is a broad range of frequencies here! Even though we imagine pitch to be a single defined unit of sound, the spectrogram helps us to realize that pitch is actually made up of a colorful array of frequencies/overtones. And, depending on how a vocalist performs a pitch, the range of frequencies will change. This is how gender expression comes through. We can create a more masculine presentation (deeper/richer/darker) or a more feminine presentation (higher/lighter/brighter) by choosing which overtones are present.
This is a pretty mind-blowing concept when you first hear it explained, so give yourself some time to let it sink in. The main takeaway here is that voice training for feminization centers on changing the timbre of the voice by changing our overtone production: more female signaling overtones, and less male signaling overtones.
How do we cultivate feminine timbre?
Now that you know more about overtones, we can discuss how voice training for feminization works. Within your body, there is something called the vocal tract. The vocal tract is the area where the voice is created. It starts at your larynx (Adam’s apple), and goes all the way to your lips. Within this area, there are three chambers where the voice will resonate. Resonation is the process of vibration that creates overtones. The three resonance chambers are called R1, R2, and R3. R1 is the area inside your throat, R2 is the area inside your mouth, and R3 is the area between the tip of your tongue and your lips.
These areas will change with amazing swiftness and sensitivity as you speak, cough, laugh, sneeze, and sing. And depending on the position they are in, the timbre of the voice will change. R1 is often referred to as the primary gender control knob of the voice. While R2 & R3 are also important, the position of R1 is the greatest determining factor in how your voice is perceived. When R1 is expanded, the voice will create more low, rich, and masculine sounding overtones. When R1 is constricted, the voice will create more high, bright, and feminine sounding overtones. What does it mean to expand and constrict? Imagine the throat is a tube that can stretch wide, or become narrow. The widened tube is expansion, and the narrowed tube is constriction.
The first step in voice training for many trans women will be focused on R1. Through careful practice, individuals will learn to create and maintain a more constricted position of R1, thereby cultivating sustainable feminine tone. If you’d like to learn more about the exercises associated with this work, check out our previous blog post called “Voice feminization exercises for trans women.”
And remember…health first
As you embark on your journey of vocal discovery, it is very important to remember that the health of your voice is paramount. No matter where the voice falls in the gender spectrum, a healthy voice is always more pleasing to the ear than a strained voice. Feminization training requires a constriction of R1, and it’s very easy to go too far in this process and end up with a voice that is overly rough, and uncomfortable to use. A good rule of thumb is: pay attention to how the voice feels. If your voice feels harsh and difficult to use, then you are in an unhealthy position. If your voice feels comfortable, then you are in a healthy position. If possible, this work is best done under the guidance of a qualified voice coach. This will allow you to move through the process of voice feminization at a pace that is both healthy and efficient.