Nature versus nurture of voice

Science can tell us how voice is produced, but what determines the way your voice sounds? Genetics? Environment?

Little research is available. Since most people genetically related also grow up together, it is difficult to separate genetic and environmental influences. Voice scientists suspect both factors play a role.  It may not surprise you that genetic factors influence vocal quality. After all, voice qualities are largely determined by the size and shape of your larynx, neck, throat and facial structures  all determined by genetics. But the influence of environment is too strong to be ignored. Consider regional accents or a family whose members all speak too loudly. Psychological factors such as abuse, low self-esteem, fear, or grief can cause a virtual lump in the throat. Many emotional problems have a way of appearing in the voice.

Male vs. female: The most basic genetic difference is, after all, sex. Vocally speaking, post-adolescent females usually have higher and lighter voices as compared to males. Why?

  • On average, the male larynx is about 20 percent larger than that of the female. The part of the vocal fold that vibrates is more than the 20 percent size difference we might expect, though. Rather, the vibrating portion of the vocal folds is more like 60 percent longer in the male as compared to the female.
  • The vocal fold edges in the male favor easy closure of the airspace between them. Because of innate differences in shape, women tend to have more air escape during song or speech, or "breathy" voices.
  • Without delving into mechanical laws, male vocal anatomy allows men to produce more acoustic power. In other words, it is easier for the male vocal system to create a powerful voice.     

Defuse your vocal environment: So, you can't change your social history and you can't easily change the anatomical shape of your voice-producing structures. But, you certainly can de-stress your body.

 Try a vocal stress-buster: Use yawns: Recreate that relaxed feeling you get after awakening from a refreshing nap. Open your mouth wide and yawn. Let some air escape. Your throat feels open and easy. Open your mouth wide and yawn again. Sigh a little as you release the air. Yawn again, this time making a full-blown sigh on your exhalation. This technique makes voicing feel easy, doesn't it? This is called your easy voice. A yawn-sigh technique is actually a form of voice therapy. (We've only presented a brief sample here.) Yawning helps the speaker drop the larynx, widen airspace between the vocal folds and open up the throat for relaxed voicing.