How do your genetics affect your voice?

I was watching this video with Dr Peter Attia and James Clear this week. The video is all about the genetics’ role in helping someone to understand how best to leverage what they have. You can watch it below if your interest is piqued!

The chief point of this video is that we all have inherent advantages and limitations conferred on us by our genetic makeup. Where a lot of people get hung up on limitations, these actually don’t make you ask “why bother to train”, they instead helpfully tell you WHERE to train and HOW to maximise your training.

The key take-away I want you know up front, is that some people are luckier than others when it comes to the voice they are born with. Let’s have a look at why.

Point 1: Your voice isn’t like other instruments

When I refer to “your instrument”, this can be a little bit misleading. Your voice is not a separate dedicated instrument like the guitar/piano. I have made many references to how it operates in a similar way (which is still true), but what it glosses over is that every part of your body used for your voice is primarily used for several other things. Your throat is used for breathing, swallowing, speaking. Your mouth and tongue are used for chewing, eating, breathing, smiling. Your larynx’s primary function is actually not making sound at all, but to stop things going into your lungs when swallowing.

As such, we have to view “our voice” as the interconnection of several other parts of our body, and not just a dedicated standalone instrument. Please do bear that in mind as we talk about “your instrument” in the rest of this article.

Point 2: The construction of the voice

As most of are aware, genetics are the blueprint that determine how your body will be constructed. Epigenetic factors, i.e. how your initial genetics are changed by external influences, won’t be covered, as that’s a much bigger topic. Just like with the physique, athletic ability, height, etc, various factors are heavily determined by your genetics, some of which have a greater influence on your sound than others.

NOTE: I’ve discussed how the voice works in numerous articles (like this one), so if you want to know more about this, please do check that out.

Starting with the larynx, the larynx size and position in the throat (in part determining the length of the vocal tract) affects the timbre and even voice type, e.g. bass vs tenor, alto vs soprano.

The length of the vocal tract, as well as the dimensions of the tract at rest/in use can profoundly affect not just the timbre but the ease of control someone has over their voice. Vocal tract length is like pipes in a pipe organ, the longer the pipe the lower the resonance and pitch of that pipe. The same physical principle extends to the voice.

The vocal folds are made up of several layers of tissue, ligaments, muscles, mucosal lining, etc. The muscle component has it’s own unique level of muscularity. The thicker the folds, the weightier the voice will be. The lighter and less substantial the folds, the lighter the voice will be. Generally speaking shorter and smaller-statured individuals will have lighter voices, while taller and larger-framed individuals will have weightier voices.

There is not always the case though, not least because interplay exists between the physical dimensions of someone’s vocal tract and the vocal folds. If you get someone with a physically light voice, but also with a very long vocal tract, this can result in an instrument with remarkably deep resonance, yet with a very nimble and reactive voice at the core of it. The reverse is also true, as you can get someone with a very muscular and weighty voice but with a shorter vocal tract length. This has a different quality and it’s own challenges, but can often yield similar advantages.

SIDENOTE: The whole point of training a voice is to get the instrument to function as well as it can. As such, well-trained voices tend to have common qualities between them.

The Genetic Lottery
In turn, some people’s instruments are ALREADY predisposed towards operating more correctly than others. Their larynx, vocal folds, vocal tract, tissue make-up is already closer to the “optimised ideal” that others might need to train to accomplish. This is like winning the genetic lottery. This can often give the illusion of a trained voice, because the quality of their instrument overlaps so much with trained voices.

The difficulty comes in that these things tend not to last indefinitely, because the body and voice changes as we age. Furthermore, personalities in the driving seat controlling the voice can also change (or refuse to change!) over time, resulting in degradation of quality. Nevertheless, when some singers are often complemented on their voice with little to no training, they are often enjoying some genetic good-fortune that their instrument a) works well and b) it produces a pleasing sound off the bat.

Point 3: Sex-differences

Men and women have different genetic make-ups. This leads to women generally having higher voices than men, but this is not the only difference between the sexes that matters for our voices.

Testosterone
Testosterone is a chief component in driving puberty changes in the voice. Boys turning into men generally experience a much more dramatic change in their voices than do girls turning into women. The whole instrument breaks apart and reforms thicker and more muscular than before for men, whereas women tend to experience a gradual thickening in their voices. There can often be periods of instability for both voices for some years, though this generally settles down by age 25-30… just in time for other changes to start! Oh, joy!

Testosterone also plays a big part in the thickness in the vocal folds. More testosterone = thicker vocal folds. If you’ve ever listened to bodybuilders who have taken extraordinary numbers of steroids, it’s like hearing a pitch-shifted voice, as their voice has thickened so much due to the steroid use.

Collagen?
One other thing that isn’t often discussed is collagen. Collagen is a protein that helps provide structure to tissue in our bodies. There is collagen inside our vocal fold tissues, and these help to provide a level of structure AND suppleness to the folds whilst singing. It has been found that more collagen tends to result in a more robust voice, less prone to fatigue and damage. The reverse is also true. It has also been found that men tend to have 2-3 times more collagen in their vocal folds than do women.

Some have hypothesised that this is a reason we often see different distributions of vocal problems between men and women. Women seem to be more prone to (say) over-use injuries such as nodules, where they may not be singing with ridiculous force, but the instrument is less capable of taking the wear and tear. In contrast, men’s instruments tend to be more capable of withstanding greater abuse before finally yielding, hence men tend to be more prone to excessive force based injuries such as granuloma’s.

SIDENOTE: There may be similar collagen related variation between ethnicities. At least within the skin makeup of different ethnicities, it has been found that some groups have more collagen in their skin (e.g. African or Caribbean ancestry), whereas other groups have less (e.g. Caucasian). There also appears to be reduced loss of collagen through aging in the higher-collagen groups. Studies are limited on how this may extend to the voice, but if it does, then such a higher collagen quantity would correspondingly provide benefits to vocal robustness and longevity.

Age-differences

I’ve actually covered what happens to the voice in each decade in this article right here. If you’d like to know exactly what your body is going through in your current decade, and what you’ve got to look forward to (genuinely!) then please do have a read.

Conclusion: It all matters, but some of us are luckier than others

You can probably work out by now, there’s a LOT of genetic factors at play that determine how your voice functions, and what the resultant sound will be like. We all have things working for our voices, and against our voices. Some awareness of these factors can go a long way to identifying how best to improve your voice, AND the pitfalls to which you are likely to be more prone.

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