Male and female voices

Confidential to men
"My voice is too high and feminine. I look like a man — I want to sound like a man. What can I do to lower my pitch?"

First, just listen to many voices — both male and female. There probably is more overlap between female and male voice pitches than you thought: males often speak at 65 to 260 Hertz, while females speak in the 100 to 525 Hz range. Thus, a voice of 100 to 260 Hz is just as "masculine" as it is "feminine."

But men do adopt effeminate voicing and speaking patterns sometimes.

1. The root cause may be behavioral: was a dominant female the developing boy's "vocal role model?"

2. Anatomically, smaller vocal structures typically produce higher pitched (more feminine) voices. In general, people are unhappy with their voices when their bodily statures and voices do not "match" (for example, a large rugby player with a little voice).

What can I do? For a male with a natural pitch on the high side, it's tempting to continuously press the larynx downward to achieve lowered pitch. This is potentially harmful. It is far better to work with a vocologist (voice specialist). The vocologist can help sort out causes of a high-pitched voice and teach you to use your lower pitch range in a healthy manner. Is surgery to permanently lower voice pitch an option? A few cases have been attempted to alter the configuration of the larynx. At best, the results have been mixed.

Is help available? Consider working one-on-one with an experienced voice team to explore the healthy and full range of your speaking pitch. Look under the Nurse's Office link to check the Voice Team Locator to find a voice team near you.

Just for women
A woman's hormonal ups and downs may affect her mood, weight, energy level — and yes — her voice.

Monthly cycles: Some women's voices fluctuate just as their monthly hormones predictably ebb and flow. Usually, these changes show up in the voice right before menstruation occurs, although some women note changes during ovulation. Voice changes — due to falling estrogen levels — usually occur on day 21 or so:

  • loss of (singing) high notes;
  • vocal instability or fatigue;
  • pitch uncertainty;
  • decreased vocal efficiency;
  • huskiness;
  • reduced vocal power or flexibility.

Hormone shifts cause changes inside the larynx. Tissues hold fluid and blood vessels dilate, increasing vocal fold bulk. Puffier vocal folds vibrate differently, making speaking and singing more effortful. Interestingly, due to these effects, European opera houses used to excuse singers from singing during premenstrual and early menstrual days.

Pregnancy: Imagine the wild hormonal ride your vocal system endures in pregnancy. When a woman is expecting, estrogen and progesterone levels surge, causing swelling of vocal fold tissue, which are heavier and more sluggish to vibrate.

Expectant and lactating mothers may notice:

  • breathiness
  • hoarseness
  • prolonged warm-up time
  • a muffled voice quality
  • vocal fatigue
  • increased vocal effort.

A key point: Changes in vocal folds usually tempt us to speak in a compensatory way. Often, this results in muscle tension in the head and neck, tongue-base, jaw and throat, as we are adding chores to structures not used to be worked this way. An end result is often vocal fatigue and hoarseness.

More on "expectant voices":  Late in pregnancy, women may notice some heartburn. This may mean that acids from the stomach are backing up the esophagus. If they spill over onto the larynx, they can harm vocal tissues, usually resulting in hoarseness. The reflux is often due to lying down soon after eating, over-eating, or eating fatty or acidic foods and/or drinking carbonated fluids. A big, near-term belly may also hinder the amount of air you can breathe in for voicing. Try not to speak at the end of your breath. Instead, opt for short sentences and more frequent breaths.

Breast-feeding: In simple terms, breast-feeding mimics the pregnancy hormonal state. Following childbirth, the hormone prolactin (responsible for stimulating breast milk) skyrockets. In a hormonal sequence of events, prolactin ultimately reduces estrogen production. So — just like menstruation — estrogen drops may cause voice breaks, breathiness or hoarseness, fatigue, difficulty phonating on certain pitches, a lack of vocal flexibility, a loss of high notes, and vocal instability.

Once breast-feeding ceases, hormone-related changes disappear.

Menopause: Menopause to most women means the (often welcome) end of monthly periods and the (often unwelcome) beginning of hot flashes. Also it brings:

  • drier larynxes;
  • less lung power;
  • weakened laryngeal muscles;
  • stiffer laryngeal cartilages;
  • thickened vocal folds;
  • more "man-like" voice;
  • fewer elastic and collagen fibers.

Unfortunately, menopausal voice effects haven't been studied as much as the premenstrual phase. Often reported changes are breathiness, a decreased range, less breath control, vocal fatigue, and — for singers — pitch inaccuracies and vibrato changes. Until recently, women were often offered hormone replacement therapy to combat menopausal body changes. However, recent links to an increased incidence of cancer may make hormone replacement unsafe. Women should address concerns to their doctors.

Before you take these...

Aspirin warning: Women who need relief from menstrual cramps should be aware that aspirin or aspirin-based pain relievers intensify the risk for vocal fold hemorrhage. Blood vessels in the vocal folds - already swollen due to hormonal changes - become even more vulnerable if aspirin is used and can burst from vigorous or overly enthusiastic speaking or singing.

Birth control pills: Some combination pills may cause a temporary lowering of the voice, making it somewhat difficult to sing in the upper part of the voice. Teachers who are singers should be aware of this. Most changes due to the pill are reversible. However some pills formulated outside the U.S. are less regulated and could contain androgenic agents that can permanently lower the voice.

And, finally, what makes us sound masculine or feminine (besides pitch)?

Vocologists have had the unique experience of working with transgender or transsexual voice clients (those who surgically change sex). These clients usually seek advice about matching their voices to their new gender identities.While hormone treatments usually alter pitch somewhat, often transgender clients are still unsatisfied with the way they sound. These clients challenge vocologists to consider: what makes a voice feminine versus masculine?

Aside from pitch,

  • Women tend to make swooping pitch changes during speech, while men tend to use their full pitch range conservatively.
  • Women tend to have more "breathy" voices as compared to men.
  • Women tend to use their articulators more than men. Sometimes voice coaches describe this as "increased energy" around the articulators, especially the lips.
  • "Feminine" communication isn't defined just by sound. Women tend to use more hand gestures, gentler articulation and "softer" word choices.