Note: the reader is invited to participate, as they are willing and able, in an embodied exploration of the relation of voice and gender, first by listening to the provided recording, and then by exploring the physical prompts provided throughout the essay.
“Now / Soon / Later” by Stephen Sondheim
When you listen to this recording, what information do you receive about the singer’s bodies? Would you be willing to make a guess at the genders of the singers? What cues would you rely on to make those guesses?
If you were to sing along with the recording, which voice would you be most likely to follow? What is it about your body, your vocal instrument, that informs that choice? How has that instrument been formed?
In fields from medical science to the rules of composition in Western music, the human voice is assumed to be a sexually dimorphic characteristic. Our vocal tract, however, is extraordinarily elastic. The ways in which we use our vocal folds, the surrounding malleable resonators, and the bellows that sound them all, are determined by our training, culture, and practices. Additionally, although our bodies, our vocal instruments, are shaped in part by a chemical stew of genetics and hormones, we are also constructed by our accumulated experiences. The obvious among these are such things as diet, exercise, and environment; for example, lungs that develop at sea level will function differently from lungs that have spent more time in high altitudes. There are also more subtle ways in which the body is constructed. Any behavior that is repeated often enough will carve out an effect on the body. Thus, the sound of our voice is shaped at least as much by our experiences and practices as it is predetermined by biology.
Take a moment to take up as much space as you can — spread your legs, throw your arms wide, expand your chest, and so forth. Take a breath, and make a sound.
Now take a moment to make yourself as small as possible — wind the legs and arms tight, suck in your stomach, be tiny tiny tiny. Take a breath, and make a sound.
Did you experience a difference in the quality of your breath and sound? If you had a constant practice of, say, crossing your legs and doing other things to make yourself smaller, how would that affect the development of your vocal instrument?
The voice is trained, expanded, constrained and disciplined by cultural institutions and social constructions, some of which have developed rigid concepts of what certain voices can and ought to do. Most scientific research into the voice is based on the assumption of categorical sex differences, particularly of pitch. The field of vocal pedagogy, although aware of the malleability of the vocal instrument, theorizes, selects, and trains voices under the constraint of the gender binary. Research in the field of voice science acknowledges linguistic and timbral differences in the gendering of the voice but operates under the assumption that a biologically determined pitch division is the greatest marker of gender. In these scientific, pedagogical, and professional approaches to the voice, an understanding of gender as a performative practice is rarely taken into consideration. The performative practices of gender, however, play a large role in the construction of our bodies and, I maintain, an even larger role in the development of our voices. I am seeking vocal pedagogy and practice that acknowledges the elasticity of our vocal instrument and troubles the notion of an irrevocable coupling of the sexuality of a body to the sound it produces. I am seeking to queer the voice.
My quest began in large part because I am a cisgender woman with a baritone voice. I habitually speak around 125 Hz, slightly below the average English-speaking male voice. Despite my deep voice, I have been consistently gendered female by folks who heard me speak or sing. This made me curious, first, about the cues beyond those of pitch that prompt us to assign gender to voices. Through a practice-as-research approach to this problem, I discovered a clear connection between gendered bodily practices and vocal development and production. As I played with these bodily practices, I found that extreme versions of such gendered practices as manspreading vs. leg-crossing had an effect on all parts of my vocal instrument, consistently altering the timbre, or resonant characteristics, of my voice. It became clear to me that timbre could be one of the most important cues for gender identification in the voice. Then, as part of my research practice, I gave myself the challenge of queering my bodily practices to the point where I could produce a passably masculine vocal timbre. As I identified and began to perform more masculine bodily practices in my vocal work, I realized that I already habitually employed some bodily practices that were far from the feminine end of the spectrum. When I attempted to isolate and reproduce extreme masculine and feminine practices, I was surprised to discover that I was extending my pitch range as well as increasing the elasticity of my timbre. In fact, I added a full octave of notes to my upper range. In the recording of A Little Night Music, the trio above, I am singing all three parts: baritone, tenor and soprano.
Is it possible that anyone is capable of producing this range of pitches with the proper training? Speech pathologist and researcher David Azul points out that, despite the fact that medical literature assumes gendering of the voice through hormones and voice box size, the average voice is capable of producing sounds encompassing a range of eight octaves. Most of us speak habitually within only one of those octaves. Additionally, mean pitches vary from one culture to another. The voice that is considered to be average for Chinese males settles around 170 Hz, with a difference of only 17 Hz from the average Chinese female voice (187 Hz). The average French male voice has been measured at 118 Hz, while the average French female voice is measured at 207 Hz, a difference of 89 Hz. English speakers are measured at 127/186 Hz (Azul 81). Most of us, then, are making culturally determined sets of choices, performing our voices in a narrower range of fundamental pitches than we are physically capable of producing.
What are we all capable of singing if we let go of what we ‘ought’ to be singing? When I approached this recording project, I was most unsure of my ability to sing the tenor part (Henrik). In the score as written, this part is notated down to a G2 (an octave and a half below Middle C). This is the bottom note generally assigned in the baritone repertoire. It is a note I often sing down to in warm-ups but only produce as a “public” note if I have a cold. (In which case, I usually have a resonant E2). Tenor parts are more normally notated down to D3, the D below Middle C, and I have known many tenors who struggle for that note in the same way I struggle for the G2. On the Original Broadway Cast (OBC) recording of A Little Night Music, however, Henrik’s part has been rewritten so that it never dips below B2. This rewritten part is the one I have recorded here. The B2 is also the lowest note I needed to sing for the baritone role of Fredrik. The highest note in the recording, in the soprano part, is G#5.
My main focus in this recording was not on the broad range of pitches, however. I have previously recorded similar multi-voice pieces, but this is my first attempt to alter my bodily practice for each voice in an attempt to produce timbres along the gender spectrum. Timbre is a matter of varying harmonic amplitude. Think of a flute, a trumpet, and a violin. Each of these can sound a similar range of pitches but, because of their different materials and shapes, they resonate with timbres that are easily distinguishable from each other. A flautist can change the pitch that they are playing and slightly change the harmonics (and volume) by applying different amounts of air pressure, but the basic shape of the instrument stays the same, so it will always sound like a flute. The timbre of the voice is related, in part, to the size, shape and material makeup of an individual’s vocal tract. However, unlike the fixed shape of a flute, there is an almost endless elasticity to the vocal instrument. In fact, every time we change our vowel, we are changing the harmonics of our voice, otherwise known as our vocal formants. The recognizable grain of each voice, as Roland Barthes famously expressed it, lies in our unique formants; but of course, those formants are both a product of our instrument (in turn a product of a lifetime of performative bodily practices) and of how we use it (182). I will detail the ways in which I altered the usage of my instrument through intentionally gendered bodily practices below.
As I worked on this recording, the most interesting moment to me was the place where Anne and Henrik sing the same words on the same pitches. Could I distinguish between feminine/masculine timbres at this point in the song? I have isolated those tracks so you can hear them individually.
The closest Fredrik comes to singing these pitches is the moment before in the song, when he sings a similar melody one third down:
I find this one particularly interesting because I failed, at the beginning of this phrase, to maintain a masculine timbre. I am still striving for a consistent application of the required bodily practices.
The bodily practices I explored in this process included:
Amount of space taken up
Direction of pelvic floor support
Lip tension / relaxation
Expressive activation of facial muscles: lower third of face vs. middle third
Space: As I expand the amount of space I take up, a more traditionally masculine bodily practice, I find that my lungs are able to fill to capacity, and this in turn allows me to produce a powerful, resonant sound. In the more constricted, traditionally feminine bodily practice, my voice becomes breathier, smaller, and higher in pitch. This is, for me, the easiest practice to take to the extreme ends of the spectrum.
Pelvic Floor: Singers learn to take deep breaths and to control the pressure of their airflow through engaging the power of their lower torso muscles. There is disagreement among vocal pedagogues, however, as to whether the engagement of the pelvic floor in coordination with this should involve a pressure bearing down on the pelvic floor, or an inward and upward pressure from the pelvic floor. In fact, a March 2020 literature review in the Journal of Voice on pelvic floor research could determine only that further study on the connection between pelvic floor engagement and vocal production is needed (Emerich Gordon and Reed). These two directions of muscular engagement are partially related to taking up space, but the experience felt gendered in other ways in my body. I had taken enough ballet classes (a practice my culture feminizes) to be familiar with the inward and upward pressure. The downward and outward pressure on the pelvic floor was less familiar to me and took considerable time and practice to achieve. My vocal coach eventually helped me find it through mimicking the hyper-masculine movements and vocalizations of the haka. The inward and upward pressure allows for a higher lift in the soft palate, which helps to create a brighter and more feminine resonance. The downward and outward pelvic floor motion pulls the trachea downward and lengthens the vocal tract, resulting in a darker and more masculine resonance. For both Fredrik and Henrik, I utilized the downward pressure, and for Anne I used the inward and upward movement. I have since taught these opposite engagements of the pelvic floor to several students, helping them to expand their ranges and diversify their sound palettes.
Lip Tension: One of my bodily practices that is most consonant with my gender is my habit of smiling frequently. Still, on occasions when I have not been smiling, I have often been admonished, by both strangers and acquaintances, to do so. This is a common experience for women in the society in which I live.
Try smiling widely and saying “sibilance.” Now relax the corners of your lips as much as you can and say it again.
When I do this, there is a clear change both in the amount of sibilance and in the formants. Even while maintaining the same fundamental frequency (determined by the frequency of the oscillations of the vocal folds), the lengthening of the vocal tract by extending the lips forward will lower the harmonics, providing a darker timbre. Pulling the lips backwards will shorten the vocal tract, and as a result the higher frequencies will be amplified, and the timbre will be brighter. If you have a feminine bodily practice, you may not be able to fully relax your lips and will need to drag the corners of your mouth down with your fingers. It took me about a month of daily practice before I could totally relax these muscles. In the above Fredrik example, my lips are not completely relaxed at the beginning of the phrase. I achieve the total relaxation on the final word, “head,” and it makes a difference in the timbre. For Henrik, I distinguished between his timbre and Fredrik’s by tensing Henrik’s lips in a downward direction. This helped create a younger but not more feminine sound to the voice.
Facial muscles: This is an area where I already had a masculine practice. I tend to move the lower third of my face more than I do the middle third, but activation of the upper part of the face is a more traditionally feminine practice. Sopranos-in-training are often asked to smile with just their cheeks; this lift and activation of that part of the face helps to create the formants that are necessary for the soprano timbre. This motion, with the tension in the corners of the lip, aids in the lifting of the soft palate, which allows for the creation of higher pitches in a more feminine timbre. If the singer is not controlling the height of their larynx, as in speech-level singing, this will also consequently lift the larynx. Allowing a heaviness into the lower third of the face will creating vowel changes by dropping the root of the tongue and lowering the soft palate, making the lower fundamental frequencies easier to reach and amplifying the harmonic ratios associated with a more masculine timbre.
I chose to do an audio recording rather than a video recording of this piece because our visual perception can strongly affect the way that we hear the voice. A 1996 study by Elizabeth A. Strand and Keith Johnson had participants listen to a series of speech sounds that were identical, but appeared to be made by a series of faces that were easily identified as male or female. They found that listeners judged sibilant fricatives (s, z, sh), the token they were asked to judge, as higher in pitch when they appeared to be spoken by a female body than when the identical token appeared to be spoken by a male body (14-26). I wished for the listeners to judge on sound/timbre alone, without being swayed by visual cues.
Although the focus of this work is on issues of gender, it is necessary at this juncture to point out that there are many positionalities that are performed in the voice or are attributed by the listener to a voice. Vocal timbre may be read differently according to the listener’s positionality and, particularly in matters of race, influenced by the visual perception of the listener. These performative practices of (or listenings to) race are messily combined with vocal gestures relating to geography, economic status and educational level. It is clear that the voice is an endlessly malleable instrument, capable of conveying massive amounts of information beyond the words we say. The way we do our voices is performative, engendering material consequences as a result of the way listeners perceive our gender, race, class and more. Despite this, the overwhelming assumption amongst researchers and pedagogues is that high and low voices are categorically associated with female and male bodies, respectively. Our bodies, however, are constructed by a lifetime of repeated acts. According to R.W. Connell, “The body, without ceasing to be the body, is taken in hand and transformed in social practice” (83). The voice, as an outcropping of that body, must also then be a construction of social practice.
We know, in our bodies, how elastic our voices are. We hear it in impressionists and versatile singers and in children at play. It takes work, however, to find a record of this malleability in the archives of scientific research on the voice. The institutions of Western European vocal performance and pedagogy have inscribed into our vocal training regimens the concept and the construction of females singing high and males singing low. This training regimen, aided by societal pressures to perform within the acceptable boundaries of our assigned gender, divides bodies into groups by perceived gender, and then trains those bodies to produce ‘appropriate’ sounds. Composers are taught to write the proper pitches for each body the institution has recognized, and those bodies whose voices lie outside of the boundaries are rejected as not having a ‘good’ instrument. Thus, the association of pitch and gender is naturalized.
Far from being biologically determined in its sexual dimorphism, the vocal instrument is shaped by the distorting forces of social norms and practices. The voice is a continuous and elastic praxis that is constructed by a lifetime of gender performance. There is still much exploration to be done of the bodily practices that shape our voices, and the ways in which we perform gender in our voices. What possible interventions can this work make? A step away from biological determinism in what is possible for the voice may help free up non-traditional gender casting, for non-binary and trans individuals, and for anyone whose voice is not completely consonant with their gender. It could free singers to train the voice they have, rather than the voice they think they should have. Composers may be able to explore setting music for characters that do not fall into binary categories. Trans people may be able to expand their toolboxes for moving their voices along the gender spectrum without medical procedures. And, perhaps, people who are seeking to queer their voice for any reason can learn techniques to remove the constraints and distortions that have shaped their instruments and can explore new ways of making sound.
Azul, David. “How Do Voices Become Gendered? A Critical Examination of Everyday and Medical Constructions of the Relationship Between Voice, Sex, and Gender Identity.” Challenging Popular Myths of Sex, Gender and Biology, edited by Malin Ah-King, Springer International Publishing, 2013, pp. 77-88. http://link.springer.com/10.1007/978-3-319-01979-6_8. Accessed 7 April 2021.
Barthes, Roland. Image, Music, Text. Translated by Stephen Heath, New York: Hill and Wang, 1977.
Butler, Judith. “Performative Acts and Gender Constitution: An Essay in Phenomenology and Feminist Theory.” Performing Feminisims: Feminist Critical Theory and Theatre, edited by Sue-Ellen Case, The Johns Hopkins University Press, 1990, pp. 270-282.
Connell, R.W. Gender and Power: Society, the Person and Sexual Politics. Stanford University Press, 1987.
Emerich Gordon, Kate, and Ona Reed. “The Role of the Pelvic Floor in Respiration: A Multidisciplinary Literature Review.” Journal of Voice, vol. 34, no. 2, March 2020, pp. 243-249.
Herbst, Christian T. “A Review of Singing Voice Subsystem Interactions — Toward an Extended Physiological Model of ‘Support.’” Journal of Voice, vol. 31, no. 2, 1 March 2017, 249.e13-249.e19. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.jvoice.2016.07.019.
Original Broadway Cast. A Little Night Music. Sony, 2009.
Sondheim, Stephen. “Now/Soon/Later.” Audio recording, vocalist Lisa Quoresimo. pianist Mitchell Brownell, producer Lisa Quoresimo, 2020.
Strand, Elizabeth A., and Keith Johnson. “2. Gradient and Visual Speaker Normalization in the Perception of Fricatives.” Natural Language Processing and Speech Technology, edited by Dafydd Gibbon, Berlin, Boston: De Gruyter, 1996.
I am, of course, indebted to the work of Judith Butler on this. ↑
In terms of soprano repertoire, this is not particularly high. The Queen of the Night repeatedly sings F6. That’s high. ↑
A dance that is traditional in the Maori culture. It is probably most well-known globally for its use in pre-rugby game challenges. ↑