Skip to content

The History of Voice Feminization

In today’s blog we will explore the history of voice feminization from the 16th century up to the present day. In recent years, gender-affirming voice care has made great strides despite the fact that the scientific community has made limited investment in the field. The scientific studies conducted are in short supply and were sometimes performed with inconsistent research techniques, leading to findings that were not conclusive enough to move the field forward. In this blog we will discover that many of the modern developments in voice feminization training were made not by medical practitioners, but by trans women and trans allies who developed the knowledge out of pure necessity and the desire to help others.

Want to learn more about voice feminization training at Seattle Voice Lab? Click here!

Voice Feminization in 16th Century Italy

The earliest example of vocal feminization may be the surgical operations performed on boy sopranos in 16th century Italy. During this era, females were not permitted to sing in churches, thus a trend emerged in which pre-pubescent males were castrated to prevent their voices from changing. These singers were called castrati, and made their first appearance in the Sistine Chapel in 1562.1 The voice of a castrato was said to possess both the power of the male voice, with the range and flexibility of the female voice. Some castrati went on to become stars of the operatic stage. Farinelli, Caffarelli and Senesino are considered to be the first musical superstars of the 18th Century.2 It is important to note here that the castration of these singers was likely non-consensual as it was usually performed on children under the age of 10. Eventually, castration was outlawed, and the last castrato singer, Alessandro Moreschi, died in 1922.

Early Research Studies on Voice Feminization: 1950s-1970s

From the 1950s into the 1970s research began to form in the field of social communication and transgender healthcare, however the information collected was vastly limited . A study from 1978 by Levine3 identified that transgender people had emerged as a recognizable minority, yet the treatment services available to them were in short supply. In addition, Levine reported that the medical practitioners who were called on to provide treatment were often lacking an accurate and detailed understanding of transgender people and their needs. A study from 19784 identified that “interpersonal communication is a primary factor affecting the perception and acceptance” of transgender people in society. Meaning that the speaking voice had been identified as a key component to the health and happiness of transgender people. 

During this time, a limited number of studies appeared on various elements of social communication. These studies aimed to discover the “sex-associated speech and language characteristics [that could be used] as a basis for speech pathology intervention.”5 The most frequently identified characteristic was fundamental frequency. Your fundamental frequency is “the frequency at which [your] vocal folds vibrate when voiced speech sounds are made.”6 The major studies performed from 1968-1973 on fundamental frequency reported an average of 128 Hz for biological males with a range of 60-260 Hz, and an average of 227 Hz for biological females with a range of 128-520 Hz.7 8 9 10Meaning that biologically female voices were found to vibrate at a higher fundamental frequency than biological males, and have a higher frequency range. Additional studies (1972-1983) reported a greater average speaking intensity in biological males compared to females,11 12 differences in vocal jitter (cycle to cycle variations in fundamental frequency, which were found to be higher in women) and differences in vocal shimmer (cycle to cycle variations in amplitude, which were found to be lower in biological women).13 14 15 16 Two studies from 197517 and 197918 reported differences in resonance patterns which were caused by the length of the vocal tract (biological females have a shorter vocal tract than biological males). In addition, there were two studies which reported differences in vocal inflection, however the findings of these studies were in conflict.19 20

A 1984 scholarly article by Oates/Decakis21 summarized the research from this era as thus: biological “females as compared to males utilize a higher fundamental frequency, a lower average intensity, greater vocal jitter, less vocal shimmer, and higher formant frequencies [due to vocal tract differences]. Oates/Decakis claimed further that biological women may also use a greater variety of intonation patterns than biological men, however they qualified this summary by reminding us of the limitations of the research reports: “discrepancies between studies in sample size, age range of subjects, voice sampling techniques, instrumentation, and measurement techniques preclude the presentation of definitive data.” Oates/Decakis also reported on sex differences in segmental speech markers: articulation, syntax, vocabulary usage, use of adjectives, speech content, assertiveness, and politeness. However, they concluded that “the application of the speech marker research findings to the speech pathologist’s work [with transgender people] is limited…” due to coincidental correlation, differences in sub-groups of the population, external factors, and changes in social processes.22 In addition, Oates/Decakis discussed the relationship of speech markers and speech stereotypes, which they declared as “not well understood, and…open to further empirical investigation.”23

Early Voice Feminization Training: 1977, 1978

In 1977,24 Kalra published a report describing a vocal therapy program for a 32 year old mtf woman who was able to increase her habitual speaking pitch from 150 Hz to 200 Hz over a period of four months. Although the report did not detail the training techniques used, Kalra did cite that diaphragmatic-abdominal breathing and Froeschel’s chewing technique (a vocal facilitating technique…first described by Froeschels in 1943)25 were “necessary to ensure that laryngeal tension, resonance patterns, and pitch loudness control were not adversely affected by the pitch increase.” This is an interesting early study to examine, because the importance of diaphragmatic breathing is contested by some modern trans voice training programs. At Seattle Voice Lab, we staunchly believe that diaphragmatic breathing is a key component to your voice training success and longevity. Vocal feminization training requires you to assume a vocal posture that your body has never used before, and without proper breath support, you will not be able to sustain this posture with relaxation and comfort- which is exactly what Kalra reported. 

A second report from 197826 details the vocal training of a 29 year old MtF woman who, after seven one-hour training sessions, was able to increase her habitual fundamental frequency from 145 Hz to 164 Hz and her conversation speaking range from 30 Hz to 70 Hz. To enact this change, the participant was “presented with a series of increasing referent pitch levels to be imitated through a hierarchy of tasks ranging from production of monosyllables to conversational speech. Auditory self-monitoring was the mechanism underlying change.” Although there was a noticeable increase in fundamental frequency and speaking range, the report states that “perceptual evaluation of her voice demonstrated that it more closely resembled a feminine voice after therapy, but was still clearly distinguishable from the voice of a [biological] female speaker.” 

Another study from 1976,27 while not relating specifically to speaking, is interesting to note as it relates to gender expression. This report describes the training program for a 20 year old MtF woman which included guidance in dress, gestures, facial expression, posture, head movement and body and movement.

Early Voice Feminization Surgical Theory & Practice: 1974-1989

In 1974,28 Isshiki proposed a new surgical technique called thyroplasty, which, in theory, would change the position and tension of the vocal cords by altering the thyroid cartilage. Isshiki tested this theory in an experimental study with 10 adult dogs, finding that “intervention inside the thyroid cartilage is minimal and therefore, fine and reliable adjustment is possible during surgery. Thyroplasty thus offers a new possibility in phonosurgery.” 

In 1979,29 Kitajima and his colleagues performed the first surgery to raise pitch by modification of vocal fold tension. In their experimental study, they discovered that there was an “inverse linear relationship between the vocal pitch and the distance between the thyroid cartilage and cricoid cartilage.” Based on these findings, Cricothyroid Approximation (CTA), would later be developed by Isshiki and his colleagues in 1983.30  In CTA, your cricoid cartilage is attached to your thyroid cartilage, causing your vocal folds to become longer and thinner, and resulting in a more feminized voice. For a time, CTA was the most well-known vocal feminization surgery, however the results were often unsatisfactory because CTA effectively locks the voice into falsetto.31 

In 1982,32 33 Donald made the first attempt to alter the length of the vocal folds with a surgical technique called Laryngeal Webb, where a webb would be created between the vocal folds effectively shortening their length and causing them to lose the ability to create the low frequency sounds typically associated with the masculine voice. An additional surgical theory is described by Oakes/Decakis in their 198334 scholarly article where the anterior third of the vocal folds are removed. The folds are then stretched and re-attached to the thyroid cartilage. Oates/Decakis note that as of 1983, both of these surgeries were still in experimental phases, and had yet to be proven effective long term. 

In 1985,35 Tananbe reported the first surgical attempt to alter the density of the vocal folds through “scarification of vocal folds, steroid injection of vocal folds, or reduction of vocal fold mass by CO2 laser vaporization.”36 however the results of this method were not favorable. 

In 1989, Wendler performed Donald’s Laryngeal Webb technique under ridge laryngoscope and general anesthesia.37 His updated technique, which would become known as Wendler Glottoplasty is now one of the most used voice feminization surgeries.38 In this technique, the vocal folds are shortened by anterior synechiae (adhesion), causing an increase in fundamental frequency. Various reports have cited positive long-term results from Wendler Glottoplasty.39 

Since the advent of Wendler Glottoplasty, there are several new and updated procedures that have come into practice, such as KTP Laser and Co2 Laser treatment,FemLar (Feminization Laryngoplasty) and Thyrohyoid Elevation.

Transgender Voice Training Methods for Feminization: 1990-2024

Little is known about the early voice training methods that were practiced in the 1990s. Since we do not have scientific research on the subject, we can surmise that the training methods developed during this era were created outside of the medical field. One example of this is the “Melanie Speaks” tapes, which were created by Melanie Anne Phillips in the 1990s. Phillips, a trans woman, created her own method based on the techniques she used to train her own voice. She recorded her method on a series of VHS tapes which could be purchased by mail for a small fee. These tapes helped trans women in a time where resources were rare and difficult to acquire. 

Modern voice training techniques started to form between 2000 and 2008. Sandy Hirsch was an early trailblazer of trans voice training during this time. Hirsch is known for developing a unique method to alter vocal resonance for gender-affirming results. She founded The Voice Lab in Chicago in 2014, and published her method, Hirsch’s Acoustic Assumptions, in 2017. She is also a co editor and author of the Plural Publishing textbook on “Voice and Communication for Transgender and Gender-Nonconforming Clients.”40 Hirsch has cited that Liz Jackson Hearn’s 2018 publications, “The Singing Teacher’s Guide to Transgender Voices”41 and “One Weird Trick: A User’s Guide to Transgender Voice”42 are the basis for the methodology at The Voice Lab.

Around 2014 the trans voice reddit page arrived, providing a connection to voice training resources that was never available before. Thanks to this page, innumerable trans women have found access to vocal feminization techniques and have been able to connect with the greater trans community across the world.

Trans Voice Training came into greater visibility in the late 2010s when Zheanna Erose started sharing voice techniques online. To date, her oldest published video is from 2017. Erose went on to found her own voice training school, Trans Voice Lessons.

In 2018, Claire Michelle founded the Seattle Voice Lab, and began to share her method. Claire developed her unique approach after transitioning in 2014. Claire used her previous training as a singer to experiment with her voice, eventually discovering a method that would lead her to found the Seattle Voice Lab. Her curriculum is unique in its fully comprehensive approach, which addresses every facet of vocal feminization with clear, direct steps. Her method is based in scientific research, vocal health and longevity, and has now helped over 3000 trans folks across the world to find their true voices. Around 2019, other trans voice training schools began to pop up online as the demand for voice training grew. In 2020, Claire expanded Seattle Voice Lab by hiring her first coach, Hannah Sumner. The Seattle Voice Lab has now grown to a staff of over twenty coaches.

Are you curious what voice feminization training can do for you?

Seattle Voice Lab is passionate about helping you find your true voice. We give you the technique you need to succeed, and the freedom to choose the voice that is right for you. Click here to connect with our friendly staff. We’d love to meet you!

References

  1.  Kim, H-T. (2020). “Vocal feminization for transgender women: Current strategies and patient perspectives.” International Journal of General Medicine. doi: 10.2147/IJGM.S205102 ↩︎
  2. Hatzinger M. et al. (2012). “Castrati singers – All for the fame” The Journal of Sexual Medicine. doi: 10.111/j.1743-6109.2012.02844.x ↩︎
  3.  Levine, C. O. (1978). “Social work with transsexuals.” Social Casework, 167-178. ↩︎
  4. Bralley, R.C., Bull, G. L., Gore, C. H. and Edgerton, M. T. (1978) “Evaluation of vocal pitch in male transsexuals.” Journ. Commun. Dis., 11, 443-449. ↩︎
  5.  Oates J. M., Decakis, G. (1984). “Speech Pathology considerations in the management of transsexualism.” British Journal of Disorders of Communication, 147. doi: 10.3109/13682828309012237 ↩︎
  6. Lee, J. H. et al. (2012) “Effect of fundamental-frequency and sentence-onset differences in speech-identification performance of young and older adults in a competing-talker background.” J Acoust Soc Am. doi: 10.1121/1.4740482. ↩︎
  7. Oates J. M., Decakis, G. (1984). “Speech Pathology considerations in the management of transsexualism.” British Journal of Disorders of Communication, 142. doi: 10.3109/13682828309012237 ↩︎
  8. Zemlin, W. R. (1968). “Speech and hearing science: Anatomy and physiology.” Englewood Cliffs, New Jersey; Prentice-Hall inc. ↩︎
  9. Hollien, H., Shipp, T. (1973). “Speaking fundamental frequency and chronological age in males.” Journ. Speech and Hear. Res., 15, 155-159. ↩︎
  10. Hollien, H., Jackson, B. (1973). “Normative data on the speaking fundamental frequency characteristics of young adult males. Journ. Phonet., 1, 117-120. ↩︎
  11.  Koike, Y. (1973). “Application of some acoustic measures for the evaluation of laryngeal dysfunction. Studia Phonol., 7, 17-23. ↩︎
  12. Markel, N. N., et al. (1972). Biosocial factors in dyadic communication: sex and speaking intensity. Journ. Personal And Soci. Psychol., 23(1) 11-13. ↩︎
  13. Hollien, H., et al. (1973). “A method for analyzing vocal jitter in sustained phonation. Journ. Phonet., 1, 117-120. ↩︎
  14. Koike, Y. (1973). “Application of some acoustic measures for the evaluation of laryngeal dysfunction. Studia Phonol., 7, 17-23.
    ↩︎
  15. Horii, Y. (1979). “Fundamental frequency perturbation observed in sustained phonation.” Journ. Speech and Hear. Res., 22, 5-19. ↩︎
  16. Sorensen, D., Horii, Y. (1983). “Frequency and amplitude perturbation in the voice of female speakers.” Journ. Commun. Dis., 16, 57-61. ↩︎
  17. Fant, C. G. M. (1975). “Vowel perception. In G. Frant and M. A. A. Tathan (Eds.)” Auditory Analysis and Perception of Speech. London: Academic Press. ↩︎
  18. Bennett, S. et al. (1979). “Acoustic correlates of perceived sexual identity in pre-adolescent children’s voices.” Journ. Acoust. Soc. Amer., 66 (4), 989-1000. ↩︎
  19. Pelloew, J. et al. (1978). “On intonation variability in Tyneside speech. In p. Trudgill (Ed.) Sociolinguistic Patterns in British English. London. ↩︎
  20. Benjamin, B. J. (1981) “Frequency variability in the aged voice.” Journ. of Gerontol., 36 (6), 722-726. ↩︎
  21. Oates J. M., Decakis, G. (1984). “Speech Pathology considerations in the management of transsexualism.” British Journal of Disorders of Communication. doi: 10.3109/13682828309012237 ↩︎
  22. Oates J. M., Decakis, G. (1984). “Speech Pathology considerations in the management of transsexualism.” British Journal of Disorders of Communication, 145. doi: 10.3109/13682828309012237 ↩︎
  23. Oates J. M., Decakis, G. (1984). “Speech Pathology considerations in the management of transsexualism.” British Journal of Disorders of Communication, 146. doi: 10.3109/13682828309012237 ↩︎
  24. Kalra, M. A. (1977). “Voice therapy with a transsexual.” Paper presented at the American Speech and Hearing Association Convention. Chicago. ↩︎
  25. Meerschman, I. et al. (2016). “Effectiveness of chewing technique on the phonation of female speech-language pathology students: A pilot study.” Journal of Voice. doi: 10.1016/j.jvoice.2015.06.016 ↩︎
  26. Bralley, H. et. al. (1978) “Evaluation of vocal pitch in male transsexuals.” Journ. Commun. Dis., 11, 443-449. ↩︎
  27. Yardly, K. M. (1976). “Training in feminine skills in the male transsexual: A pre-operative procedure.” Brit. Journ. Med. Psychol., 49, 329-339. ↩︎
  28. Isshiki, N. et al. (1974). “Thyroplasty as a new phonosurgical technique” Acta Oto-Laryngologica. doi: 10.3109/00016487409126379 ↩︎
  29. Kitajima, K. et al. (1979). Cricothyroid distance and vocal pitch: experimental surgical study to elevate vocal pitch.” Annals of Otology, Rhinology & Laryngology. doi: 10.1177/000348947908800109 ↩︎
  30. Yaghchi, C. A. et al. (2023) “Cricothyroid approximation.” Voice and Communication in Transgender Diverse Individuals. doi: 10.1007/978-3-031-24632-6_13 ↩︎
  31. Kitajima, K. et al. (1979). Cricothyroid distance and vocal pitch: experimental surgical study to elevate vocal pitch.” Annals of Otology, Rhinology & Laryngology. doi: 10.1177/000348947908800109 ↩︎
  32. Donald, P. J. (1982). “Voice change surgery in the transsexual. Head and Neck Surg., 4 (50, 433-437. ↩︎
  33. Kim, H-T. (2020). “Vocal feminization for transgender women: Current strategies and patient perspectives.” International Journal of General Medicine. doi: 10.2147/IJGM.S205102 ↩︎
  34. Oates J. M., Decakis, G. (1984). “Speech Pathology considerations in the management of transsexualism.” British Journal of Disorders of Communication, 147. doi: 10.3109/13682828309012237 ↩︎
  35. Tanabe M, et. al. (1985). “Surgical treatment for androphonia.An experimental study.” Folia Phoniatr (Basel). doi: 10.1159/000265774 ↩︎
  36. Kim, H-T. (2020). “Vocal feminization for transgender women: Current strategies and patient perspectives.” International Journal of General Medicine. doi: 10.2147/IJGM.S205102 ↩︎
  37. Wendler, J. (1990). “Vocal pitch elevation after transsexualism male to female.” In: Proceedings of the Union of the European Phoniatricians; Salsomaggiore, Italy. ↩︎
  38. Casado, J. C. et al. (2016) “Wendler glottoplasty and voice-therapy in male-to-female transsexuals: Results in pre and post-surgery assessment.” Acta Otorrinolaringológica Española. doi: 10.1016/j.otoeng.2015.02.003 ↩︎
  39. Kim, H-T. (2020). “Vocal feminization for transgender women: Current strategies and patient perspectives.” International Journal of General Medicine. doi: 10.2147/IJGM.S205102 ↩︎
  40.  Adler, R., Hirsch, S., Pickering, J.(2019) “Voice and Communication for Transgender and Gender-Nonconforming Clients.” Plural Publishing. San Diego. ↩︎
  41.  Hearn, L. J. (2018) “The singing teacher’s guide to transgender voices.” Plural Publishing. San Diego. ↩︎
  42. Hearn, L. J. (2018). “One weird trick: A user’s guide to transgender voice.” CreateSpace Independent Publishing Platform. ↩︎