The voice is one of the primary gender markers, and one which is frequently the last addressed in a gender transition process. For performers, teachers and leaders, this marker has the added complication that much of our working life involves using our voices in a range of different contexts.
Pitch and intonation should be addressed at the outset
Pitch is not the most important marker in vocal identity. But it is by far the most obvious one. The idea that the masculine is pitched lower than the feminine and vice versa is subject to societal norms (Schmid & Bradley 2019), context and other speech factors.
Intonation patterns play a far more significant role in defining gender identity than mean speaking pitch (Fo) (Huang, Y & Zhang, Y 2019). In addition to the mean singing or speaking pitch of the voice, intonation is a gender marker which should be addressed at the outset of a transition journey.
The vocal transition process can, and should in many cases, begin prior to the full-time gender transition. Speech Language Therapists (SLTs) are available via the NHS, although not all areas of the UK offer this service. Your MU rep will be able to provide a list of private SLTs specialising in this field.
The start of the sound is key to the overall perception
The quality of a sound, what musicians would call timbre, is made up of two main aspects – spectrum and envelope, that is the resonant harmonics of a sound and the way the sound varies over time. The start of a sound, or initial transient, is key in defining the overall perception of the sound. In English, this commonly means consonant sounds.
The way we produce plosive, fricative, affricates, and particularly nasals has a significant impact on the gender perception of our voice.
As an experiment, take the velar [ŋ] and hum gently. You may notice that this causes a gentle tilting sensation in the larynx as you modulate the pitch of your hum. This process of redefining your relationship to your voice is one which SLTs will be able to guide you through, and may be addressed in a number of other ways.
Different technical approach are instrumental in defining vocal identity
The differences in vocal technique, especially in respect of singing, are largely cultural rather than universal. In spite of this, certain technical approaches are consistent across different musical genres, especially the way singers approach the extremities of the voice.
The masculine voice in the upper registers achieves the characteristic ‘ring’ by directing resonance into the lower resonating cavities (‘belting’ or ‘closing’). The alternative methodology is to access the falsetto.
The feminine voice has a greater tendency in most pedagogies to ‘open out’ in higher registered. This difference in timbre and dynamic level between the modal and falsetto registers often is not as pronounced in female voices as it is in male voices, due to the difference in the length and mass of the vocal folds and to the difference in frequency ranges involved.
These differences in technical approach are instrumental in defining vocal identity within a specific genre, and should be a significant part of any vocal transition, under the supervision of a qualified SLT and/or singing teacher.
Voice transition approaches
In addition to voice therapy under the guidance of SLTs , the most commonly explored routes to explored to achieve a vocal transition are hormone therapy and laryngeal surgery.
A significant number of the trans*+ community seek some form of hormone therapy, either for a limited period, or as part of a life-long transition.
The UK currently has two main Gender Identity Development Service (GIDS) clinics, in London and Leeds which deal with young people seeking to address their gender identity. For mature trans*+ people, services are more widely available.
For Trans men, the effects of hormone (testosterone) therapy normally results in considerable masculinisation of the voice through increasing the size of the vocal cords and consequently lowering the pitch. In order to habituate their new voice into a musical use, particularly for singers, and to masculinise their vocal quality, resonance and intonation patterns, some additional speech therapy will still be required.
For Trans women, the effects of hormone (Oestrogen) therapy are usually less dramatic. Especially after the onset of puberty, the thickening and lengthening of the vocal cords cannot be reversed by hormones alone, and the lower position of the larynx is also not affected by this approach. A surprising amount of change can be achieved by Speech Therapy alone, frequently enough to achieve a well feminized voice.
For singers seeking to alter the mean pitch of their voice, the option of vocal surgery should also be considered.
For trans women, surgical voice feminisation involves shortening the vocal cords, reducing their mass, or increasing the tension on the vocal cords. The exact nature of the approach will be unique to every individual, and will be discussed by the surgeon, together with the SLT before any commitment to the procedure is made.
Although this approach is not universal amongst trans women, vocal surgery has become much less taboo amongst performers in recent years, and remains a valuable option.
Laryngeal surgery (surgery on the voice box) may also assist trans men to achieve a vocal identity which they are comfortable with, particularly for singers. Surgery can involve reducing the tension on the vocal cords or increasing their size by use of fillers. Further options can involve enlarging the cavities of the larynx and the vocal tract, allowing the larynx to sit lower in the throat.
A range of technologies exist to aid the transition process.
Apps, including Christella VoiceUp, EVA, Vocal Pitch Monitor, Voice Analyst, Pitch Analyser and Tuna Pitch can help monitor the process in conjunction with any of the above approaches.
A gender-nonconforming voice can easily impact wider gender identity.
This, in turn, attracts a societal reaction. In the field of communication, this reaction is usually stigmatic, marking the individual out as gender non-binary, or otherwise an object of fun. For a high profile example, mark the transformation in David Beckham’s speaking voice from early interviews to his later media persona.
In the field of performance, gender androgyny is far more widely accepted, and has been long before trans*+ rights became a societal issue. From Billy Tipton through David Bowie and Chris Colfer the vocal non-binary is a well-established trope.
Every approach to defining, or redefining, vocal identity is as unique as the individual voice in question. Whatever your vocal identity, and whatever use you chose to put your voice to is ultimately your own.
This article was published as part of the MU’s participation in Transgender Awareness Week, which runs in the UK each year, 13 – 19 November.
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