So, what does it mean to be transgender? The word transgender is a term that has been widely adopted to describe a person who’s gender identity, gender expression, or behavior does not adhere to what is culturally accepted or commonly associated with the sex they were assigned at birth. A person’s gender identity is their inner sense of being female, male, or something else, while gender expression is the way in which that person expresses their gender. Gender can be expressed in many ways such as hairstyle, choice of clothing, body language, and voice. The word transgender is often used as an umbrella term, however not every person who’s appearance or gender expression is nonconforming will identify as transgender.
Every person has a unique life path to discover and explore, and for some trans people, that journey includes transforming their gender expression to match their inner gender identity. This process happens in a wide variety of ways, but today we are going to zero in on one particular aspect: transformation of the voice. The voice is a powerful signifier of gender, and for many trans people their vocal gender expression is crucial to their wellbeing and quality of life.
The voice is a wonderfully sensitive and elastic instrument, capable of conveying an endless spectrum of expression. However, newcomers to trans voice training will sometimes mistake the voice for being stiff, and unmovable. It can feel scary or totally overwhelming just to get started! However, if you are reading this now, then you’ve already begun your journey. Your voice is waiting, ready to move, dance, fly, and dive, ready to bring your unique inner self into outward expression.
The physiology of the voice
A good way to begin the process of vocal transformation is to investigate the basic physiology of the voice. The average fundamental speaking frequency of adult females is 220 Hz, while the average frequency for adult males is 120 Hz. Rather than just observing those numbers, let’s try to understand what’s happening inside the body to produce these results. There are two main differences between the masculine and feminine physiology: the length of the vocal tract, and the mass of the vocal folds. The behavior of these two factors will determine the frequencies of the voice, and the frequencies will signify gender characteristics. Below we are going to explore the physiology of the vocal tract and the vocal folds. If we make an effort to understand exactly how their behavior effects the voice, then we can better know how to alter our vocal behavior, and thereby create the gender expression we desire.
Length of the vocal tract
The vocal tract is the area inside your neck and head where the voice is produced. It starts at your larynx (voice box/Adam’s apple) and goes all the way to the tips of your lips. The larynx is a cartilage box that holds your vocal folds, and it has the ability to move up and down as we speak and sing. If you’d like to feel your larynx in action, put your hand gently around your throat and swallow. You’ll feel something move up and down under your skin, this is the larynx.
The average vocal tract of an adult female is around 14.5 cm long, and the average adult male vocal tract is around 17-18cm long. This difference in length effects the gender presentation of the voice. The longer the vocal tract is, the more low frequencies it will create, resulting in a more masculine presentation. Now this is where it gets interesting: as you discovered earlier, your larynx has the ability to move. That means that you have the ability to change the length of your vocal tract! If the larynx is trained to sustain a high position, the length of the tract will be shortened, resulting in a higher, thinner, and more feminine voice. This is the method that mtf people seeking vocal feminization will pursue. The opposite is true as well: if the larynx is trained to sustain a low position, it will produce a darker, rounder, and more masculine voice. This is the method that ftm people seeking vocal masculinization will pursue.
Vocal fold mass
Your vocal folds are two pieces of mucosal tissue that reside inside your larynx. As you speak and sing, air flows through the folds, causing them to vibrate. When we refer to vocal fold mass, we are discussing the length and thickness of the folds. On average, the adult female has a vocal fold length of 13-17mm, and the adult male has an average length of 15-23mm.3 The vocal folds of adult males will also be thicker than those of females, and these combined factors will tend to make their folds vibrate slower.
With the aid of voice training, it is possible to alter the voice by teaching the folds to adopt more or less mass. A thinning of the folds will produce a lighter, smaller and more feminine sound, while a thickening of the folds will produce a darker, buzzier, and more masculine sound. The fold mass can be manipulated by training the breath pressure, managing the amount of vocal fold closure that is used, and learning to control the breadth of your thick / thin spectrum (the proportion of how much thickness vs thinness you use). Breath pressure is the amount of force that our lungs produce to move the air up through the vocal folds. We can use high breath pressure, low breath pressure, and endless variations in between. Vocal fold closure refers to a process that our folds go through during vibration. We can either create adduction (increasing force that moves the folds together), or abduction (releasing force, where the vocal folds come apart).
The beauty of voice training is that it allows you to gently explore your voice, gradually learning how alterations in your technique will produce vastly different qualities. It’s an exciting and powerful process where individuals can find the voice that feels authentically true to them. Your voice is waiting!
1 – American Psychological Association. Answers to Your Questions About Transgender People, Gender Identity, and Gender Expression’ 2011; Retrieved from https://www.apa.org/topics/lgbtq/transgender.pdf
2 – Oates J, et al. ‘Transgender Voice and Communication: Research Evidence Underpinning Voice Intervention for Male-to-Female Transsexual Women,’ Perspectives on Voice and Voice Disorders, 2015; doi.org/10.1044/vvd25.2.48
3 – Kob M, et al. ‘Simulation of Differences Between Male and Female Vocal Fold Configuration During Phonation,’ NAG/DAGA, 2009; Retrieved from https://pub.dega-akustik.de/NAG_DAGA_2009/data/articles/000570.pdf
4 – Simpson A. ‘Phonetic Differences Between Male and Female Speech,’ Language and Linguistics Compass, 3, 2009; pages 621-640.
5 – Fant G. ‘Acoustic Theory of Speech Production,’ The Hague: Mouton; 1960.
6 – Kahane J.‘A Morphological Study of the Human Prepubertal and Pubertal Larynx,’ American Journal of Anatomy, 151, 1978; pages 11-20.