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Our Voices, Our Selves

A microphone lies on a table. The picture is colored in grayscale.
Juan_Alvaro / Openverse
Sometimes we shape our voices to match our surroundings - but the pitch and timbre of your voice belongs uniquely to you.

The voice is the one instrument we carry with us wherever we go. The way we sound is an important aspect of performance, whether on stage or in terms of our gender identity.

If you’re not a vocalist, actor, or radio show host, it’s possible that you’ve never thought of your voice as an instrument. But whether you’re singing for an audience, giving a presentation, or talking on the phone, your voice can inform others’ perceptions of who you are.

Host Anita Rao’s voice is her bread and butter, and in this episode she speaks with three other guests with significant relationships to their voices. Mezzo soprano, music instructor, and trans activist Tona Brown recounts how her coming-out experience affected her relationship with her voice. Speech-language pathologist Kevin Dorman breaks down the science behind vocal production and describes their work as a vocal coach for trans and gender-nonconforming clients. And musician and multidisciplinary artist Andrea Oliver Roberts takes a deep-dive into the fascinating history of artificially-synthesized voices, from Wolfgang von Kempelen’s original “speaking machine” to modern virtual assistants like Siri, Alexa, and Echo.

5 Voice-Related Myths, Busted

1. Myth: It’s possible to determine someone’s gender identity based on the sound of their voice

When we think about a stereotypical male voice, it’s often lower-pitched. For the female voice, it’s higher. Some audiologists have gone so far as to quantify these gendered distinctions, assigning a range of 85-155 hz to the masculine register and a range of 165-255 hz to the feminine register.

However, quantifying voices in this way reinforces cultural biases against higher-pitched voices and excludes people whose voices might not align with their gender identity. What’s more, it leaves a range of about 10 hz that’s considered neither masculine nor feminine.

Musician and multi-disciplinary artist Andrea Oliver Roberts finds this vocal “no-man’s land” to be particularly fascinating and troubling: “It's interesting to me that this [range of 10 hz] is a place where no one exists, especially as a nonbinary person who has an ability to move around on the range.”

2. Myth: Throughout history, higher vocal parts like soprano and alto have been sung exclusively by cisgender women

Up until the 19th century, women were not allowed to sing in church choirs. Starting as early as the 15th century, the Catholic Church and opera singing schools would buy prepubescent male children from poor families and castrate them as a way to preserve the high pitch and clear resonance of their voices. Known as castrati, these singers were celebrated within the church for their beautiful voices, but they were ostracized by society at large because of the ways their lack of testosterone production affected their physical appearance.

“Oftentimes, they had very long features. Their skin would look kind of like ghosts — like very pale — and they'd have really long extremities,” said vocalist Tona Brown, who became fascinated by the castrati while a student at Shenandoah Conservatory. “Society would make them have almost like a scarlet letter.”

The popularity of the castrati peaked in the 16th-18th centuries, and the last castrato, Alessandro Moreschi, died in 1922.

3. Myth: People modify their voices for aesthetic purposes, not practical ones

As a vocal coach for trans and gender-nonconforming clients, Kevin Dorman spends much of their time helping people unlearn restrictive cultural norms about how voices “should” sound. However, they also know that for many of their clients, modifying the voice to align with these gendered assumptions can be a matter of safety.

“Ultimately, we do live in a world where people need to be safe as they walk around and want to be able to go through public spaces without feeling like there's a spotlight on them,” Dorman said. “And so for some people, simply just getting that voice that reads as female — or as male, or as androgynous — is exactly what they want.”

4. Myth: Gendered assumptions about the voice only harm trans and gender-nonconforming people

Brown’s vocal range lies in the realm of mezzo soprano. Before her transition, instructors would often restrict her from singing at the higher end of her range based on the fact that she was still presenting as male.

However, Brown shared that her barrier to accessing quality vocal instruction wasn’t specific to her identity as a trans woman. Singers whose voices have any kind of uncommon characteristics — whether in terms of timbre, range, or resonance — might have difficulty finding teachers who are equipped to train their particular instrument.

“People don't know how to train dramatic voices very well in this country,” Brown said. “And so if you happen to be transgender, or have any sort of rare, unique-sounding voice, you're going to have issues, and that's what I was going through. It wasn't necessarily just because I was trans; it was because I have a very unique sound.”

5. Myth: Siri is female

Ask Siri about its gender, and you’ll likely hear one of the following responses: “I am genderless, like cacti and certain species of fish!” or “Animals and French nouns have gender; I do not.” Despite this, virtual assistants are nearly always depicted as female, and the voice we know as Siri (which is actually based on that of voice actor Susan Bennett) exhibits many of the characteristics we tend to associate with women’s voices.

According to Roberts, the decision to give Siri stereotypically feminine characteristics is an intentional one. The design of voice technology and artificial intelligence — including virtual assistants like Siri, Alexa, Echo and Google Home — takes into account not just our practical needs, but our psychology. Roberts said that companies like Apple and Amazon choose to give their virtual assistants feminine characteristics since this makes it easier to collect users’ personal data.

“[Apple and Amazon] were coding intentionally with a non-accented English voice that was coded as female to have people feel more at ease with this presence in their home,” Roberts said. “They’re surveillance devices… and [a feminine voice] sounds a lot more innocuous and less threatening.”

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Audrey Smith is a writer, educator, and temporary producer of "Embodied" based in Greensboro, NC. She holds a Master's degree in Secondary English Language Arts Education from the University of North Carolina at Greensboro (2018) and a Master of Fine Arts degree in Nonfiction Writing from Oregon State University (2021).
Anita Rao is an award-winning journalist and the host and creator of "Embodied," a weekly radio show and podcast about sex, relationships & health. She's also the managing editor of WUNC's on-demand content.