Can the Voice Burn Out?

Does the voice have an expiration date – a stage of “burn out” after which it can’t function anymore?

Does our ability to sing have an age limit? The question of age and voice has been highlighted on Fox’s hit TV show, The X-Factor, where contestant LeRoy Bell is proving that age has little to do with vocal strength.  It’s not just Bell’s incredible voice that has viewers stunned; it’s also the fact that he’s almost 60 years old.  Bell defies the odds (and industry standards – he clearly has found the Fountain of Youth), making it into the final 12 against far younger competitors. Bell’s fellow aspiring stars including 14 year old Drew Ryniewicz and 13 year old Rachel Crow.

Given Bell’s success, is it fair that people question whether or not a 60 year old can still sing strong enough to impress the judges? This feels so unfamiliar because today’s singer is starting off in music at a very young age, with voices that are relatively unused and youthful. Breaking into the music scene at the age 60 is unheard of.  But is Bell at a disadvantage because of his aged voice? Is his voice at the end of its lifespan, and therefore limited?

The voice doesn’t necessarily deteriorate with age. Aging has many effects on the voice, most of which are poorly understood. Why, for example, does a twenty-year old woman sound so different to a forty year old-woman. Both are still in the same hormonal phase (i.e., we can’t blame puberty or menopause). And yet we can all place the age of a speaker to within a decade. Interestingly, the same is true for outward appearance so it stands to reason that there are similar, slow changes happening internally that age the voice, even as it retains its ability to function normally. Our skin doesn’t stop working simply because there are some fine lines.

The more significant predictor of vocal deterioration is vocal rigor. When you start a high-demand singing schedule younger, you are more likely to damage your voice or burn out and lose your voice before you hit your 40s.

The consequences of a rigorous singing schedule on a developing 13 or 14 year old voice are not yet known.  However it is thought that the young singer is not prepared for intense vocal use and that, when the demand is too high, damage can occur rapidly.  It is a relatively new phenomenon to put young voices to such vocal extremes. We know that 20- and 30-year olds who “make it” often lose their singing voices by the time they hit their 40s, likely due to extremely high demand and lack of preventative vocal health care.

Consider Steven Tyler, who has spent 40 years singing.  Tyler has used his singing voice far more over the past decades than Bell, despite their relative same age.  While Tyler can still strain and hit his rock scream, Bell lightly accessing his high tenor is a different tune.  There is an ease and smoothness of Bell’s pitch-perfect sound that is difficult for Tyler to achieve.

A normal vocal cord is lined with soft, flexible tissue, like the inside of your cheek.  Excessive or harsh voice use causes this tissue to swell and then stiffen. Over time, scarring accumulates and worsens voice quality. The loss of pliability results in a rough sound and a decrease in singing range. This is more common in pop, rock, metal, and Broadway singers.  However, there are no absolutes.  Opera and gospel singers can scar and rock singers can avoid scarring.  The determining factor ends up being how well the artist cares for their voice, demand, and medical conditions.

It is important to recognize that some musicians desire the rougher tone that scarring creates.  For example, Tyler would not hold nearly the same appeal if his high G was clear and operatic.  His raspiness works, and is a large part of his appeal.  There is something to be said for his mastery of the metal scream, even if it is likely causing vocal damage.

Singing for a long time does not guarantee a damaged voice.  In truth, while the voice usually does weaken with age, singing consistently and skillfully can delay this weakening.  Singing is actually a form of exercise for your voice.  Bell is a great example of how singing throughout your life can give you a strong and beautiful voice, even at 60.  His age also gives him a maturity that a 13 year-old performer simply cannot have.  He has experience at controlling his voice, knowing when to hold back and when he is safe to push.  He knows how his instrument works.  This has enabled him to preserve his voice, so that at 60, he has a fresh, uninjured sound.

As Bell has taught us, voices do not have expiration dates.  With delicate care and practice, voices actually mature and improve with age.  There is no age at which a person can no longer sing; but without care for the instrument, voices do have a running clock.  How fast that clock goes and how long it takes to expire is entirely dependent on the user.  In Bell’s case, it seems he is only in the early hours of his career.