I was chatting to some older singers recently, who were struggling with their voices. I mentioned this is fairly typical for untrained voices, and these were the varying responses…
“What exactly happens to your voice as you get older?
I used to be able to sing pretty high with a strong voice when I was younger…
But now, it feels like I sing much lower, maybe an octave lower, and it’s much weaker than I remember.”
This is actually a fairly accurate (albeit abridged) experience of what happens to voices that do not receive help as they age. As they asked, I explained what happens and why, and I thought it was worth discussing that here. Whether you are in your teens, over sixty, or somewhere in between, it is really helpful to know how the voice changes as we age, and what tends to happen along the way.
Puberty hits. Somewhere between the ages of 12-18, the voice physiologically changes to become the new shape and configuration it will be for the rest of our adult life. The difference is that it is brand new. This new instrument is fresh, but undeveloped in any musical or learning sense – because it is literally brand new.
Such instruments are (generally) free from any previous injuries. The muscles and tissues are generally pretty compliant, though this also leaves them open to obeying instructions that will cause longer term damage to them.
These advantages don’t mean that everyone can sing well when they are young, simply that they can get their voice to do things that older voices might suffer when doing.
Young singers often have the energy and carefree attitude that permits them to attack notes with an intensity that isn’t safe or sustainable. Yet, because of the relative freshness of the instrment, they can often manipulate it to sound less forced than it is. In many pop genres, this is even stylistically desireable by the market at large.
The body keeps developing physiologically until about 25. You see this in the general body shape of post-teens as they ‘fill in’ from 18 to 25. Similarly, the voice will fill in a little bit more, the weight in the voice typically increases a little bit more, etc. However the instrument will typically remain pliable, per the above.
Once a singer gets to about 25-30 though, the development and freshness ‘period’ is at an end. This is when we start to see differences between singers that maybe weren’t apparent when they were just a year or two younger. Issues can start to creep in for those singers whose approach is unsustainable.
Artists that have relied on youthful vigour, or a pugilistic approach to singing will start to encounter more resistance to that attitude of singing. Those who have been reliant on the “freshness” of their post-pubescent instrument generally start to see their voice wane at this stage. Many aren’t even aware they are relying on their youth in this way.
Whereas singers that weren’t forcing their way to higher notes, tend to find they don’t lose anything. If anything, such singers they tend to find more depth starts to fill into their voice.
Once a singer gets to about 30, a key developmental change starts to occur. Ossification, where cartilage turns to bone. I’ve talked about that in more detail in this article.
“Usually ossification [turning to bone] occurs first in the thyroid cartilage at about 30 years of age and is complete by 65 years. Cricoid cartilage ossifies from behind and forward. Rarely ossification occurs in the epiglottis, cricothyroid ligament, and upper part of the stylohyoid ligament.” 1
Until age 30, the larynx is made of cartilage, which is a relatively rigid but deformable material in our bodies. The same material in our knees and other joints. One can hit notes excessively hard with air pressure not because it’s technically correct, but because the cartilage can act like suspension. But once the cartilage starts to turn to bone, this ‘suspension-like’ attribute begins to disappear.
This is usually the key downward turning point for most singers.
This is where singers start to notice how their range is not what it once was, how they struggle to hit notes the way they once did. (Side-note: I can’t help but notice even the language of ‘hitting’ is synonymous with the language of attack or violence).
I say this not purely based on the theory, but on empirical evidence also. I personally get a substantial number of professional performers come to see me about this age, all with issues stemming from this change. The natural aging of the voice is incompatible with the pugilistic approach of (literally) hitting high notes.
These are generalities of course, as I meet singers who start to struggle before they are 30, and some don’t get issues til 35. I’ve even had some hold on to their younger more pliant voice til they are about 40… but most untrained voices tend to follow this projected course sooner or later.
Yet the best opera singers reach their peak in their 40s.
“Opera singers can stay at their peak for decades with efficient technique, good health, and a suitable repertoire.
One reason Pavarotti was able to sing for so long was because he didn’t strain his vocal folds; he delivered songs as easily as if he were conversing, embodying an approach that voice coaches call “Si canta come si parla,” or “Sing as you speak.”2
The same developmental quirk that derails the average singer is actually the very change we NEED for great singing into later years. I’m not saying opera is the end all and be all, but it is the genre of singing with the greatest preserved history, and the highest demand on the voice technically. Ergo, we would do well to pay heed to it.
Working theory as to why
The working theory is that the rigidity of the larynx provides a solid frame for the vocal folds to operate on. It is also understood that these changes better enable resonance and a efficiency of operation of the instrument.
The consequence of this change is that some will stop singing in this decade of their life. This is especially true for voice professionals, who perhaps find the demands their career places them under outstrips their capacity. This tends to be infuriating for artists/performers, as they try ever harder to do the things they used to do, but find they cannot do so. If anything this generally leads to a downward spiral in vocal ability. Vocal confidence then deteriorates alongside.
Once people hit their 40s, in men and women alike, we start to encounter overall physiological decline. This is assuming no intervention or maintenance programme being undertaken by the individual (e.g. gym, diet, treatments, etc). This is where men’s testosterone and muscle mass tends to drop3. Energy levels also decline, as does the body’s ability to recover from injury, as well as a generally likelihood for ease of injury goes up as tissues weaken. There are similar body and hormone issues that women have to contend with4.
This is where personal training to maintain muscle mass, or hormone replacement therapy are modern tools to help combat physiological decline.
Muscles become less supple without the right maintenance. The weakening musculature within the voice often starts to cause the untrained voice to thin out tone wise. This is at the same time as the larynx descending with age.
This often leads to a weaker voice also sitting lower in pitch – the worst of both worlds for most singers! Yet, remember that this is the decade that the best singers should be hitting their peak.2
If one is beating their voice up on a regular basis like they once did in their youth, and they didn’t already suffer, this is when they tend to do themselves a mischief (e.g. nodules, granuloma, haemorrhage, etc). Many will stop singing as much as they used to in this decade of their life, simply because they can’t sing like they once did.
This is much a continuation and completion of what was happening in the 40s. Further deepening of the voice due to laryngeal drop, ossification of the larynx drawing to a close, etc. Any bad habits that have been sustained over time will become far more evident in the voice in this decade.
Voices that have got substantially weaker in the 40s can often see a dramatic weakening of the voice (even when speaking in the late 50s), especially if someone does not use their voice regularly in their day to day life or work. Whereas voices that have continued training and acquiring the best traits of their developing voice will typically see continued tonal and functional growth even into this decade.
More extreme hormonal changes in women and in men can also lead to still more severe perceived changes in the voice, but such changes are beyond the scope of this article.
Whilst life obviously continues beyond 60, in terms of vocal development we are drawing to a close. The larynx now sits much lower than in any earlier decade. Without training or regular correct use the muscles will be the weakest they have ever been. The larynx will be completely bone at this point. The body will be the least complaint or capable of taking any substantial abuse/misuse. This is where correct vocal technique is so important to maintain a healthy voice.
The Take-Home Message
For the developing singer, most of these are advantages
And yet, most of these traits are advantageous to the studious singer, or at least not a problem. The solid larynx, the deeper laryngeal position for added bottom end, aids in vocal tone and tone production. With regular use there is no reason for muscle wastage (which is why regular exercise is so generally essential for us as we age). With correct vocal technique, we shouldn’t ever really stray into a zone of causing damage.
Once we develop/capture range correctly (I can’t stress that enough), provided we keep accessing it day by day as our voice changes (whatever age we start!), there is no normal functional reason we can’t keep it. If we find we start to lose some of our range, or a certain area feels less comfortable etc, that is generally an indication there is a behavioural issue for us to solve, NOT a technical limitation in the instrument itself.
Source: 1 – US National Library of Medicine