The Changing Male Voice – not always so “Glee”ful

Most television shows that take place in a high school feature actors that haven’t seen the inside of a high school classroom for almost a decade (or more).  There are many reasons but in the case of the hit television show, Glee, this may have something to do with the show and how it features music and singing.

This show features the actors’ actual voices. The voices are rich and varied: a tenor as crisp and clear as a bell, a rich bass, and a full baritone.  In the years since Glee was first released, there are many other shows that highlight the human voice but at the time, this was an exceptional example. The voices belonged to a male cast whose average age is in the mid-twenties.  It is difficult to find this spectrum of depth and talent among actual high school-aged boys because these boys are going through voice maturation.

For men, puberty is accompanied by many challenges that have significant social and emotional impact.  The most well-known may be the voice change and intermittent voice breaks that come with it. This is difficult for any young many to go through. But for the young male singer who has used his voice on a higher level, he now finds his instrument changed and hard to access. This change may be underappreciated because of its temporary nature.  But these young men often fall out of singing during this period, both because of frustration with their voices and the lack of opportunities to develop and understand their voices.  They may put on performing hold until their voices find placement again.  This year-long forced hiatus often pushes many young men out of the arts altogether.

WHY DO MEN’S VOICES CHANGE?

During puberty, hormone levels in the body rise, producing changes throughout the body, including the brain, muscle, skin, hair, and of course, the voice.  The male larynx changes much more than the female larynx.

Changes include:

  • Increased size of larynx, including the forward protrusion of the “Adam’s apple”
  • Lengthening of vocal folds*
  • Thickening of vocal fold lining
  • Increased mass of thyroarytenoid muscle, producing increased vertical thickness of the vocal fold and bulging of the vibratory edge**
  • Change in pitch by one octave
  • Larynx drop, increasing the space in the pharynx (throat), changing vocal timbre
  • Expansion of the chest (increase in vocal endurance)

*The increased length of the vocal folds is likely the most important factor in the male voice change

**This results in a longer period of glottal closure (or vocal fold contact) and increased amplitude of vibration, resulting in a richer voice

HOW LONG DOES IT TAKE FOR THE MALE’S VOICE TO “SETTLE”?

On average, the male voice adjustment takes 3-6 months.  1 year is the maximum expected time from onset to completion of voice change and this is usually done by age 15.

Interestingly, the singing voice may take 1-2 years to completely mature.

IS THERE ANYTHING THAT CAN MAKE THE CHANGE HAPPEN FASTER?

There is nothing that can “speed up” this process.  However, singers can often control their voices better because they are more in tune with their voices.  Singing lessons therefore can improve the stability of the developing male voice.

WHEN SHOULD I BE WORRIED?

Seek medical care by a laryngologist for the changing male voice if there is:

  • Pain with speaking or singing
  • Very abrupt change
  • Prolonged time for voice to settle*

*Some men become concerned after 1 month of voice instability; others wait years.  Get evaluated when you are concerned.  Do not be falsely alarmed or reassured by averages or “normals.”