A popular conception of the human voice holds that it could reveal a speaker’s or singer’s gender. This assumption is based on an understanding of the voice as an organ that is shaped by the biological processes of sexual determination. According to this perspective, sex-specific dimensions of larynx and vocal tract are formed at puberty due to the upsurge of sex hormones. In adults, bigger “male” voice organs are seen as producing “male” voices, and smaller “female” voice organs are seen as producing “female” voices.
However, at closer inspection, the concept of a “naturally sexed voice” appears to be based on undue simplifications. If we want to understand how the voice—as a combination of utterance and auditory event—becomes gendered, so I argue, it is not sufficient to remain within the limits of the concept of a naturally shaped, sexually dimorphic voice organ. Rather, we have to consider the contributions of a speaker’s or singer’s vocal behavior and of listeners’ interpretations to the gendering of voices. According to this perspective, the cultural practices of performance and meaning making are inextricably entangled in voice production and “gender,” as a social construct that is attributed to voices, is no longer controlled by “sex.”
- Gender Identity
- Vocal Tract
- Human Voice
- Gender Identity Disorder
- Voice Pitch
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The terms “sex” and “gender” are often used heterogeneously and at times interchangeably. For some scholars, notably those who work in the medical sciences, the notion of “sex” includes the notion of “gender,” because they understand not only the sexual characteristics of a person’s body but also their “gender identity” (the sense of belonging to one of the two genders) and their gendered behavior as biologically determined. According to other perspectives, however, “gender” as a cultural construct is positioned as distinct from “sex.” Following those views, what gender means for a person and how they perform their gender in their behavior is independent of their physical characteristics. Other theorists, again, contest the sex-gender distinction and abandon the term “sex” because for them there is no access to bodies and identities other than through the lens of culture-specific meaning-making practices. In this chapter I use the term “gender” in order to refer to the notions of “sex,” “gender identity,” and “gendered behavior” taken together. The term “sex” will appear only when I quote from or refer to texts that subscribe to the first view mentioned above.
I am referring here on the one hand to the thyroarytenoid or vocalis muscle, whose contraction results in a shortening and thickening of the vocal folds and to a slowing down of vocal fold vibration, which can be measured acoustically as a decrease in average fundamental frequency of vocal fold vibration. On the other hand I am referring to the cricoarytenoid muscle, whose contraction leads to a lengthening and stretching of the vocal folds and an increase in speed of vocal fold vibration, which can be measured as an increase in average fundamental frequency of vocal fold vibration.
See, for instance, the following web page for sound recordings of singers who are capable of producing pitch levels and vocal ranges that exceed the normative ranges for biological males and females: http://www.divadevotee.com/2010/11/female-with-largest-vocal-rangegeorgia.html.
Schultz-Coulon and Asche (1988), for instance, have determined the following lower and upper limits of normal singing ranges for adults: men (87–587 Hz) and women (147–784 Hz). These normative data suggest that every healthy adult speaker, regardless of the size of their voice organ, is assumed to be capable of varying the fundamental frequency of their voice within the range of 147–587 Hz (this is equivalent to a range of 24 semitones or two octaves).
As Oates and Dakakis  report, gender attribution experiments have shown that speakers who use a speaking fundamental frequency of below 160 Hz are likely to be judged as male, whereas speakers who use a speaking fundamental frequency of above 160 Hz are likely to be judged as female.
While many studies have found that the average fundamental frequency and resonance frequencies of a voice are critical to listener judgments of speaker gender, results from studies that investigated stereotypical expectations about the differences between male and female voices indicate that listeners consider also other vocal characteristics when making these judgments, among them the variability of intonation patterns and various perceptions of voice quality (see  for an overview).
Of the 15 male-to-female transsexual speakers included in Gelfer and Schofield’s study, listeners identified 6 consistently as male speakers, 4 were identified as male in 90 % or more of listener judgments, 3 were identified as female in 90 % or more of listener judgments, and the voice samples of two speakers received female gender attributions in less than 60 % of listener judgments. Of the 14 female-to-male transsexual speakers included in Scheidt et al.’s  study, listeners identified 9 consistently as male speakers and 1 consistently as female. Two speakers were identified as male in more than 90 % of listener judgments and the remaining 2 speakers received male gender attributions in 78 and 54 % of listener judgments, respectively.
Responses in this survey reflected various theoretical positions: while a gender identity described as “female with the genitalia of a male” stays within a binary notion of sex and gender, descriptions such as “transgender,” “genderless,” “gender fluid,” and “genderqueer” indicate positions that transgress conventional categorizations.
Please note that these diagnoses are informed by a binary concept of sex and gender and therefore do not do justice to the situation of people who experience and think about their bodies and identities in alternative terms.
When considering the forms of address and reference to persons that are available to us, it becomes apparent that the restriction of the notion of gender to two mutually exclusive versions is already built into many languages. The lack of linguistic forms, which would signify understandings and experiences of sex and gender that transgress the female-male binary, further increases the difficulty of acknowledging gender diverse voices and identities and contributes in turn to a consolidation of the gender binary perspective.
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Azul, D. (2013). How Do Voices Become Gendered? A Critical Examination of Everyday and Medical Constructions of the Relationship Between Voice, Sex, and Gender Identity. In: Ah-King, M. (eds) Challenging Popular Myths of Sex, Gender and Biology. Crossroads of Knowledge, vol 1. Springer, Cham. https://doi.org/10.1007/978-3-319-01979-6_8
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