Are Male and Female Voices Really That Different?

The short answer is “no”.

There are cultural differences, and differences of size of the larynx and vocal folds, but functionally all voices have the same scientific registers available to them – fry/Mode 0, chest/Mode 1, head/Mode 2, and whistle/mode 3. All voices need to be trained to use their full pitch potential in chest and head registers for optimum function and health, regardless of the styles they sing in. All other things being equal, larger larynxes will have an easier time singing lower pitches than smaller ones.

All the same structures are present in males, females, and intersexed people. What is different is size and shape. Before puberty all voices are more alike, but the male’s hormones cause the larynx to become larger and the folds to lengthen and thicken. Bigger instruments produce lower pitches more easily. This is why the voice’s comfortable pitch range drops at puberty in most men.

If a woman’s body has enough testosterone, her larynx will go through the same transition, even though anatomically she is a woman. Once a larynx has grown, it will not shrink again, so the tendency is for the comfortable pitch range to drop as the instrument grows and/or the folds lengthen and/or thicken.

If a person born as a male transitions to female, the larynx cannot become smaller, but that person can learn to speak on higher pitches if they wish to approximate the cultural norm. Large larynxes speaking and singing high pitches have a different timbre than small ones on the same pitches.

There are physically normal males who have small larynxes and normal women who have large ones. Sometimes it is hard to tell by phonation alone which gender one is hearing when they speak or sing. However, there are speech patterns that are typically different between men and women that are also a factor, and two people talking at the same pitch using typical gender-identified mannerisms and vocabulary can sound like “one or the other” without too much confusion.

Culturally, low-voiced women used to be encouraged to speak in higher ranges than today. Listening to radio shows or films from the 1930s and 1940s provides much evidence of that. Now, many young women aim their voice so low that a lot of “vocal fry” creeps in. Men can fry too, but it is much less common.

Similarly, after puberty many boys artificially restrict the pitch range of their speaking voices to low pitches to project a mature, masculine identity. However, much of the popular song repertoire requires very high singing.

It is a complex interaction of biology and culture that creates what we perceive as female and male voices.


3 Replies to “Are Male and Female Voices Really That Different?”

  1. “All other things being equal, larger larynxes will have an easier time singing lower pitches than smaller ones.”
    You mean relatively lower pitches? I mean the whole register passaggios are shifted down or up depending on the voice.
    I hear some school of thought for which the female has no different passaggio from tenors (F4) but the difference in length of chords doesn’t influence where any register lies but how good they are at any registers, so we’d have females naturally better at head voice tones with a broader head range and men naturally better and stronger chest note with a bigger chest range, same applies for lower male voices.
    Yet this doesn’t just compute right, as there are baritone that have better and more developed head voice than many tenors, which simply timbrically have harder time blending it with their chest range than tenors.
    Shouldn’t it be as simple as 1/2 the size of a given fold means a voice lying an octave higher, with passaggios and critical points lying an octave higher as well, double the fold half the frequence.
    The only non linear factor should be the air management required for lower voice, which varies more in lower voice as they ascend tones. This gets the things harder for them.

  2. I’ve taught and coached kids for over 28 years in my own ‘study’ I guess of tens of thousands maybe less than you. I myself felt humiliated as a lead in our chorus when my voice changed early right during the provincial finals.

    I’ve taught around the world to and will point out that East Asian women often not always sound lower speaking English than their own tongue they also tell me they have to make an effort at it and gets tiresome. I’ve had the rare boy jock with a Michael Jackson voice though iirc never a girl with Kathleen turners voice, at least not until some reunion after 10 years of smoking for instance.

    For chorus we found that the louder our kids tried to forte whether in scale or hold the far harder it was for even our brilliant music Charles Jackson who could still hit it after puberty but not hold it like the girls and those too many years we had far too few or no boys it just never happened we’d get girls down baritone let alone base.

    My thousands around the world for decades may mean little compared to your sample, but in my humble opinion nature plays far greater influence than culture in this respect.

  3. I never had any idea there were so many variances and descriptive terms in voice! All this head, chest, fry, whistle, etc noise makes me want to take some voice lessons. Fascinating stuff.

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