Paul Cook Voice

This research paper examines some of the changes encountered by the mutating female voice during adolescence.

mutating voice
The Mutating Female Voice During Adolescence: How does the voice change, what causes the changes and what are the potential implications for the teacher?

by Paul Cook

This research project will examine literature on the most notable changes that occur in the female voice between the ages of 11 to 18 years in order to identify the sequence and symptoms of these changes and how they might manifest themselves in the adolescent singer.

Puberty represents a period of physical and emotional upheaval for every child and the general disorganisation of vocal functions that ensue is complicated further by the fact that different parts of the vocal anatomy grow at different speeds and at different times (Weiss 1950, Williams 2019).

There exists a very large body of research into the male voice during the cambiata phase (Cooksey 1977, Swanson 1981, Williams 2019, White & White 2001) and, while the changes in a boy’s voice during adolescence are more obvious than those which occur in girls, the female voice nevertheless goes through significant, if less dramatic or obvious anatomical changes (Weiss 1950, Gackle 1991, Skelton 2007). Education in female voice change has sadly been largely non-existent and the research available is limited although the subject is now becoming an area of growing interest, largely due to the growth of mixed children’s choirs (Friar 1999, Gackle 2006, Sweet 2018).

Gackle (1991) observes that the most common characteristics exhibited during female voice change are as follows: lowered speaking pitch; obvious register breaks, breathiness and huskiness in the tone of the voice; fluctuating range; difficulty phonating; tendency to crack.

An understanding of the physiological changes that the female voice experiences is central to this study. When a girl arrives at secondary school aged 11, her voice is very similar in its physiology to that of a boy (Williams, 2019). As Williams notes, the male larynx is usually slightly larger and the vocal tract longer than that of the female, and whilst boys often tend to speak at a lower pitch than girls, their vocal ranges are approximately the same (G3-G5). Skelton (2007) argues that, whilst there is little no physiological difference between the larynxes of boys and girls at this stage of development, the relatively stronger physicality of boys means that girls have less breath support and therefore sing with less power.

Gackle (2000) notes that the average age of the onset of puberty has fallen during the last sixty years to approximately twelve and a half years for boys and ten years old for girls, although this will vary according to the individual. The subsequent stages of development during adolescence remain unchanged, although Williams (2019) notes that puberty can vary in duration widely, typically between eight to forty-eight months. Menstruation begins later than the onset of puberty but has usually occurred prior to the thirteenth birthday (Gackle 2006). Williams (2006), suggests that the greatest period of growth for girls occurs between the ages of ten to thirteen; approximately two years earlier than boys.

Tanner (1971) and Gackle (1991) have conducted comprehensive studies into the stages of development of adolescents with approximate ages at which each stage begins and ends, however charting musical development is less understood. Swanick (2003) acknowledges that there is a broad, obvious pattern of musical development but that the rate of development is less driven by inevitable physical growth, but more likely exposure to music, social environment and cultural preferences. This hypothesis is inextricably linked to singing in schools as students (particularly in the middle years of secondary education) see themselves as living in an adult world rather than a classroom world. The implication is that adolescent students often perceive themselves as being ready to sing material which, in reality, they are not yet physically ready to learn. McCoy (2020) highlights a common trend amongst many students who perceive themselves as being able to sing anything they like just as their idols do and that, as a result, progressive technical development is not necessary. Skelton (2007) suggests that during adolescence when the vocal organ is growing rapidly, often different components at different rates, the larynx is at its most vulnerable. The teacher should be extremely mindful of the repertoire that the developing voice is allowed to sing. Caldretti (2017) notes that many girls feel pressured into belting and that this is often seen as a rite of passage into being perceived as an adult singer. Social and cultural pressure and perhaps a desire to land principal roles in school shows are also considered to be pressures to belt. Does this suggest that I am partially responsible (although indirectly) for the obsession with belting prevalent in my teenage students? Alexander et al. (1986) suggests that one of the principal causes of vocal abuse amongst adolescent singers is the teaching of belt by teachers who are classically trained but who are not equipped with the technical knowledge to teach such extreme postures safely. McCoy (2007) admitted that, as a classically trained singer, he had absolutely no idea about how to teach belt and that he acknowledged that he needed to embark on specialist training in order to become a more diversified teacher.

Tanner (1971) suggests that the onset of menstruation is occurring 3-4 months earlier with each passing decade. An Article in the British Medical Journal in 2001 reported that the fall in average age of the onset of menstruation had fallen about six months in the 20 years prior to publication to around 12 years, 11 months. The relevance of this to the teacher is that voice change may occur earlier than expected and some children may arrive at secondary school already having reached puberty. Often it is hard for the teacher to visually gauge the physical developmental stage of a female student and problems can arise when teaching groups of Year 7 students the same repertoire, which might be suitable for some prepubescent girls but not for others who are already experiencing vocal mutation.

At birth the vocal folds are 3mm in length (Hirano 1981) and, by the end of puberty, the female vocal folds have reached a length of 13-14mm. During puberty the female vocal folds increase in length by 3-4mm. The end of puberty sees the female vocal folds reach their adult length (Kahane 1978, Williams 2019) but they continue to increase in width and mass into the twenties. The principal factor that specifically drives the maturing of the vocal folds is still inconclusive (Skelton 2007). Is maturity of the vocal folds acquired by inevitable physical growth or by increased phonation? Skelton suggests that, rather than just growth alone, vocal training/increased use of the voice can help facilitate the development of the musculature of the larynx more rapidly.

The vocal folds of one in three females are affected by the menstrual cycle (Oberlander 2010) which can result in a reduced level of laryngeal functionality. This can manifest itself through hoarseness, loss of range and projection and can last for up to five days prior to menstruation. The tissues of the female vocal folds are particularly susceptible to hormonal instability because they constitute more hormonal receptors than almost all other tissues.

The principal difference between the development of the female and male larynx during adolescence is the angle and direction of growth: the male larynx increases in an anterior-posterior direction (length) whilst the female larynx grows mostly in a superior (height) direction (Weiss 1950, Skelton 2007). The teacher should be aware that sometimes the protruding larynx of a boy (Adam’s Apple) can also be seen in girls with low voices (Weiss 1950).

Skelton (2007) observes that the female larynx increases by approximately 20-30% during adolescence, this is considerably smaller than the proportional growth of a male: typically 60-70%. Whilst the dimensions of the larynx typically reached by the end of adolescence are within the parameters of contemporary vocal pedagogy, physiological changes in the larynx continue well into adulthood. The weight of the larynx increases during puberty (Sweet 2018), and the strengthening of the musculoskeletal system helps provide stability and efficiency.

In addition to growing in size and weight, the larynx also descends during adolescence from its initial position in infancy behind and level with the jaw and has dropped lower in the throat by three months of age (Williams 2019). The complete process takes several years and the rate of change is almost imperceptible, except during puberty when the rate of descent is at its most rapid. The seven cervical vertebrae (bones found in the neck) can be used as reference points to map the journey of the larynx from infant to adulthood. The laryngeal height of an infant is relatively high (Chapman 2006) and corresponds with the third cervical vertebrae. By the end of adolescence, the larynx has descended to at least the sixth, and often, seventh cervical vertebrae (Williams 2019). The neck widens and lengthens during adolescence which provides the space for the larynx to descend but this initially can disturb the functionality of the neck musculature with the result of undermining the stability of the larynx (Weiss 1950).

A high larynx means a shorter vocal tract, which consequentially, results in restricted resonance (Williams 2019). When the vocal tract is shorter the formants of the voice are higher with more brightness. As a child moves through adolescence and the larynx starts to descend, the space available in the vocal tract (filter) expands thus increasing the resonance and quality of the voice (Steinhauer & Klimek 2017). Weiss (1950) notes that developments in the structure of the oral and nasal cavities during puberty also provide increased space for greater resonance.

An inevitable result of increased space in the larynx and vocal tract is the extension of terminal pitch in both directions: approximately dropping a third and rising slightly (Gackle 1991, Williams 2019). Sweet (2018) suggests that the extension upwards can be as much as a third. Gackle (1991) suggests that the female higher vocal register can start to extend upwards from the age of 14 or 15. Even as the range develops during adolescence, there are still significant limitations on what the voice can do in terms of accessing pitches successfully or reliably because of the constant readjustments in technique required to cope with sudden growth (Caldretti 2017).

However, as no two voices are the same, Brodnitz (1983) perhaps offers the best working conclusion for the teacher in the studio: that the female voice, after going into puberty, descends a few notes. He also suggests that the beginning of menstruation and the lowering of the bottom of the female range happen at the same time.

Williams (2019) notes that as the female larynx grows during puberty, the usual pattern of vocal fold vibration is disrupted for a period of time. The female adductory muscles are weaker during the period of greatest laryngeal growth and the reduced inability to ensure full contact between the vocal folds at the back of the larynx during phonation (glottic chink) often allows breath to escape and mix with the sound (Sweet 2018). Gackle (1991) suggests that breath in the voice can appear early in the period of voice change. Gackle (2006) states that breathiness in the adolescent female voice is most noticeable during the period of maximum growth but the rate of air loss diminishes when approaching adulthood and will eventually disappear.

Weiss (1950) argues that the huskiness often present in the adolescent female voice can be characteristically changeable subject to the amount and type of vocal activity undertaken such as shouting or loud singing. Gackle (1991) suggests that huskiness is most frequently experienced during the peak of mutation (ages 13-14) and that the causes are the mutational chink associated with breathiness.

It is well documented that adolescent girls often have a preference for singing in their lower register (Williams 2019, Phillips & Trollinger 2006, Gackle 2006) and that the quality of the voice becomes increasingly breathy with less contact made between the vocal folds during phonation as the pitch ascends. Often there is a noticeable flip between chest and head voice with the two registers not matching in tone. Many singers popular with girls, and whom they often seek to emulate, for example Demi Lovato, sings almost exclusively in her lower register and the singing of higher notes (particularly by singers such as Ariana Grande) is typically extremely breathy, falsetto quality.

The register transition between chest and head voice is typically C5-D5 and there is growing evidence to suggest that the lift points rise as a girl reaches 14 or 15 to approach those of the adult voice at D5-F sharp5 (Williams 2019, Gackle, 1991). Since the vocal folds in children do not have the density or thickness of those of an adult, the change in vocal quality between thick and thin vocal fold posture is much less noticeable when a child is phonating. This can be problematic for the teacher who may struggle to differentiate between the two postures and could potentially promote the use of the wrong body cover in the wrong part of the developing voice. This is a common problem in adolescent singing and Caldretti (2017) gives an example of adolescent girls frequently attempting to sing in a legit style but by extending their head voice too low in their range. Although it is possible to phonate with thick or thin body cover at any pitch throughout the range (Steinhauer & Klimek 2017), when the voice is unstable and vulnerable during mutation, great care must be taken to avoid over extension of the registers. Similar problems can occur in the lower register in which girls during mutation are often much more inclined to use (Williams 2019) and the voice can be classified incorrectly as being an alto when, in fact, the girl is a soprano but she just hasn’t got used to using her higher register yet. This is problematic for choral directors who may struggle to persuade girls to sing higher parts in their choir. Williams (2019) suggests that by identifying the average pitch of the speech register, the lowest comfortable sung pitch will be about a third lower and that this method could be used to help the teacher/choir director allocate parts more efficiently. Chapman (2006) suggests that voices should not be classified during adolescence and that a range which the singer finds most comfortable should be used during lessons/rehearsals. This should inform the teacher when selecting repertoire which does not extend beyond the tessitura that the singer is comfortable singing at that time. The challenges presented by this are the implications of fluctuating limits of range potentially means regular changing of repertoire or transposing existing songs.

Weiss (1950) attributes the difficulties often experienced in phonation during adolescence to the changes that occur in the relative dimensions of components of the vocal apparatus. Whilst it is possible for the voice to develop without any disturbance between the co-ordination of spoken and singing voice, the relationship can totally break down with unpredictable changes occurring in the corresponding changes in function as different parts of the larynx grow at different speeds. Williams (2006) concluded that phonation becomes inconsistent and less secure in adolescent girls and that a loss of control in the singing and speaking voice is common during puberty. Caldretti (2017) notes that onsets starting with slack folds (creak) often appear at the points of changes in registers or parts of the voice which are less secure or developed. The teacher needs to be aware of this habit among some girls who often manufacture slack onset to sound more American.


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