It happened at my house all the time: my sister’s friend called, I answered, and the friend thought she was talking to my sister. Apparently our voices are quite similar. Could that be because we share about half of our genes? Recent genetic research shows that there is a link between certain gene variants and a high-pitched voice.
Language genetics expert Else Eising thinks it is an innovative study. “There is still very little research into the relationship between voice and DNA. Studies with twins, in which identical and fraternal twins are compared, can help to gain insight into whether and to what extent DNA is involved in traits. The only major twin study conducted to date that was related to vocal tone was on bone structure. As a result, we already knew that facial structure is very hereditary, and that can certainly influence how your voice sounds.”
The new research looked at the DNA of 13,000 Icelanders. In that population, there appears to be a link between certain gene variants and a higher voice. The research was done separately on men and women, because the difference between them is so great. “A study like this should be seen as a start that makes a lot of new research possible,” Eising explains. “We now know that DNA has something to do with it, and which variants are involved, but we don’t yet understand the biology. For example, the researchers find a link between a gene variant and the adrenal gland. Hormones are produced there, and a hormone like testosterone naturally affects voice. That could explain the link with pitch.”
Genes therefore influence our voice through physiological characteristics such as bones and hormones. Such physical characteristics differ greatly in men and women – the size of the larynx alone differs and creates a completely different sound. As a linguist at the University of Groningen, Remco Knooihuizen studies how language sounds are related to social behavior, for example how the pronunciation of men and women differs. When he was giving a lecture about this, he received a question from student Max Reuvers: “He asked me: what about trans people? I had no idea, so we started looking into it.”
Reuvers is a trans man, and since he was given testosterone, his voice became increasingly lower. Yet people on the phone still sometimes thought he was a woman. Knooihuizen: “We wondered what else changes when you take testosterone. Is it just about voice pitch, or also about other aspects of your language, and which ones?” Reuvers had conversations with five other trans men. In this way they collected hours of changing vocal sounds, so much that they have not yet been able to analyze everything. But what Knooihuizen and Reuvers are already seeing: “The voice pitch of men decreases neatly over time. With other properties the picture is chaotic. For example, the s sound. We know from other research that it sounds sharper on average among gay and trans men. There is no pattern in our conversations. But that could also be because the people in our study are quite different: one is gay, another straight, one now identifies more as non-binary than as a man.”
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Vary for voice emotions
Hormones cannot completely change a voice, explains Barbara van Olffen. She is a speech therapist, specialized in voice therapy for transgender people. “The hormones that trans women use to feminize their bodies do not affect their voices. They really need to use voice training to ensure that their voice changes accordingly. There are also plenty of trans men who take hormones, but still notice minimal voice change. That’s because you’re used to making sounds in a certain way. Women allow the air in their cranial cavities to vibrate more, while in men the voice comes more from the chest. If, as a trans man, you continue to use your old vocal technique, you may experience less effect from testosterone.”
Van Olffen does not only practice with her clients on a higher or lower sound. “People focus on pitch, but that is actually not the most determining factor of the voice. We also work on intonation, stresses, how to pronounce vowels and consonants, volume, posture… Voice emotions are also very important. You have to be able to distinguish between happy, relieved, businesslike, and a parenting voice. Trans men who lower their voices are sometimes told, “You sound so angry!” Then I explain: you have to vary, we all need low, middle and high in our voices.”
Stereotypical female voice
At the start of a process, Van Olffen draws up a plan together with her client. “I ask clients for an example of a female voice. Then they often call Chantal Jansen, or Dionne Stax. We are quite attached to such stereotypical examples from the media. But suppose you are in your 60s and are transitioning, is that realistic? An adult voice also contains life experience, so you don’t want to sound like a teenage girl. And someone might have a Twente accent or something like that. We really look: what suits someone’s life and environment?”
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Claire Slingerland’s experience
“I grew up with a male body, so also with the voice that comes with it. That voice didn’t suit me at all, just like the social role, the body, absolutely everything: it wasn’t ‘me’. I wanted a feminine, warm voice, that’s what suits me.
A voice is a very complex thing; people underestimate that. It’s not just pitch, but also intonation, breath pressure, resonance. Sometimes someone says: I want an operation on my vocal cords. But then you only change the pitch, so you only reach such a small part. Not to mention that it is a risky operation. I then say: just start practicing! Voice change means a lot of training, three times a day, very disciplined.
The process was fun, I didn’t find it difficult. It’s nice that you notice that you are making progress. My voice has changed enormously. At the beginning, 210 Hz was the highest I could reach, now that is my normal speaking level. My entire vocal range has shifted. The funny thing is: for those around you, this happens very gradually. I had already gone up 80 Hertz, but my parents said they heard no difference. Oops… But later I called someone I hadn’t spoken to in a long time and who said: your voice has changed, I hardly recognize you! That’s satisfying. I just have the feeling that it is not good yet. When I hear myself again, I somehow hear the echo of my old voice. So I keep doing my exercises. It really is a muscle that you have to keep training.”
Genes for reading
So it is possible to change your voice. But what about that DNA? Van Olffen: “You always have the option to raise or lower your voice, only up to a certain limit. High sopranos also do not sing the low alto part. That has to do with the physique, the larynx, the length of the vocal folds. You don’t change that.”
Eising also thinks that both genes and behavior matter. “Compare it with something like reading skills. In Amsterdam it has been discovered that children who, due to their DNA, have a slightly more reading talent than their peers, experience more reading pleasure. As a result, they read more often and become even better. A small genetic effect in children becomes very large in adults, because it stimulates reading pleasure. It’s a very strange thing, such a DNA effect. It feels static, but it is changeable. You can learn a lot, but your genes limit how far you can develop in all directions.”
- Gisladottir, Rosa S., Agnar Helgason, Bjarni V. Halldorsson, Hannes Helgason, Michal Borsky, Yu-Ren Chien, Jon Gudnason, et al. 2023. Sequence variants affecting voice pitch in humans. Science Advances. American Association for the Advancement of Science 9(23). eabq2969.