#11   Vive le différence! 

As infants our larynx is positioned high in the neck to fulfill a wonderful biological purpose; it enables us to begin to vocalize, as well as breathe and nurse at the same time. 

Prior to puberty gender difference in our voices are few and singing voices among boys and girls are quite similar. Yet, when pubertal changes occur, hormones affect the shape and size of the larynx, and here is where nature begins to create two beautifully different instruments.    

For young men in adolescence, the greatest growth of the larynx is anterior to posterior which creates the protuberance known as an Adam’s Apple.  The vocal folds increase in thickness and length, and the voice descends in pitch approximately an octave.

For young women in adolescence, the greatest growth is in the vertical length of the larynx, and the pitch of the new young women’s voice drops about 3 or 4 half steps, and maintains its upper range.

For both young men and women an overall increase in size of the whole mechanism, including chest width creates a stronger, though still forming-- see #6 The Teen Voice, instrument.  

Earlier we talked about two basic registers; chest and head voice in #5 Smoothing Out The Breaks. If we look at the relative relationship of chest to head voice as gender differences, in men’s voices we see that most singing for men, in general, occurs in their chest voice. If we look at the relative relationship of chest voice to head voice in women’s voices, in general, most of women’s singing is in our head voice.  

If the general shape of the vocal mechanism is different for the different sexes, it stands to reason that different approaches need to be made to address those differences in one area in particular; that is the area of vowel modification as the pitch ascends into upper voice.  

Vowel modification is the method by which we make alterations to a vowel to adjust for the faster vibrating frequencies of higher pitches.     

In The Functional Unity of the Singing Voice, Barbara Doscher discusses optimal vowel choices and the respective differences between men and women in her chapter on fixed formants and vowel modification:

What is the principal difference between male and female vowel modification? Male voices close as they ascend and female voices open. The statement may be oversimplified, but as a basic guide it is valid”.  

It’s important to note that there is a difference between a closed vowel and a closed mouth.  Both men and women need to let their jaws release as they sing higher, yet how much the jaw will open depends very much on what is comfortable for the individual.  

Composers who write well for the voice have understood the differences between men’s and women’s voices and accommodated the differences accordingly in their use of text in the upper voice. 

Take for example two famous arias from the Italian composer Giacomo Puccini. 

The tenor’s aria Nessun dorma from Puccini’s opera Turandot has the climatic pitch on the word vincera, the second syllable which is a closed vowel. 

In the soprano aria Visi d’arte from Puccini’s opera Tosca, the climatic pitch is on the second syllable of signor, an open vowel. 

Try this:

Men experiment with modifying as you are ascending through and above the second passagio to closed vowels as well as releasing the jaw.

If you’re singing an aw add some ah, if you’re singing an ah add some eh, if you’re singing an eh add some eeh, if you’re singing an oh add some ooh. 

Women experiment with modifying ascending through and above your second passagio to open vowels and let your jaw remain free and released as though you’ve just said the word “duh”. 

If you’re singing an ooh add some oh, if you’re singing an eeh add some eh, if you’re singing an eh add some ah, if you’re singing an ah add some aw. 


Have a very fine week.






Copyright © 2010 by Sarah Oppenheim-Beggs