Video: Practical Androgyny – Vocal androgyny in speech and singing - Download audio-only version
Full summary of the video follows with links to all the people and songs mentioned. Alternatively you can skip directly to the bonus content at the end.
The video talks about vocal androgyny, both in speaking voice and in singing voice.
I’ve seen a lot of videos out there aimed a binary transgender people (so, guys or girls) looking to develop a voice that is more easily perceived as their true gender rather than their assigned gender, but there’s very few for nonbinary, genderqueer, gender variant or gender nonconforming people who wish to produce an ambiguous, more androgynous voice that defies binary gender classification.
I like singing, it’s really important for me and I think my singing has helped me to gain more control of my voice in general, so I think it’s right to cover both speaking voice and singing voice in the same overview video.
Before I start, here’s a bit about me; I’m nonbinary, my gender is complicated but I live as ‘gender neutral’ with an androgynous presentation. I transitioned medically about 12 years ago but still experienced gender dysphoria from what was supposed to be ‘passing’, so about two years later I transitioned again to a more intentionally androgynous state. I’ve been presenting androgynously for over a decade now.
Obviously my voice has been changed by testosterone (I have quite a lot of resonance in my chest), but I’m lucky enough to have ended in a the higher end of a male range – I sing as a high tenor, possibly a little low alto too.
I want this video to be as useful to as many people as possible so I’m going to try to cover a lot of different types of voices, not just those like mine, but obviously I have the most experience with my voice! But I’ll try to cover people whose voices are higher than mine or lower than mine.
I don’t want to make assumptions about whether your voice has been affected by testosterone, or if it has I don’t want to assume when and why that happened. I’m also only going to assume your aiming to be more vocally ambiguous, nothing about your gender or identity – for all I know you could even be a cisgender voice actor looking for tips or you could be looking at this out of sheer curiosity!
I’m not a vocal expert or a trained singer, I have very little formal training (I had two singing lessons over the summer, that’s it). So I’m self-taught – expect any music theory I try to include to be a little bit wonky!
I have been dysphoric about my voice for a very long time. When I was a teenager I used to cope with my voice my being a mimic, singing in the voices of other people. I could sing songs I loved and think it wasn’t my voice but someone else’s, so disconnect from the fact that they were assigned a gender by those listening to me.
I’ve never felt comfortable with either binary gender and I’ve always been drawn towards androgyny, so I’ve been exposed to and singing like the voices of vocally androgynous people for most of my life. I think as a result I think I’ve become at least a bit more adept at controlling my voice.
If you’re going to work though these exercises yourself, especially if you’re planning to sing, be sure to relax (very important!), keep your back straight, loosen your shoulders and keep them relaxed but don’t slouch forwards (although I realise many trans* people have issues around their chests and prefer slouching posture). I’ve already warmed up, you have a vocal warm up of your own, maybe sing a little and get used to finding the lowest and highest pitches your voice is comfortable at. I have some sweet ginger tea here and as I’m asthmatic I also just took my inhaler as a pre-emptive strike (my doctor recommends this).
OK so let’s start off with vocal pitch, how high or how low your voice is. Most people believe this is the only vocal gender cue. The pitch of your voice can be extended by altering where you’re speaking from, which part of your body is being allowed to resonate. Obviously your voice comes from your throat, but it’s affected by whether you’re making use of the ‘resonance chamber’ in your chest. The two extremes are singing from your chest only, or singing from your throat only. These are typically conceived of as a ‘chest voice’ and a ‘head voice’.
You’ve heard my normal speaking voice, well here’s my unaltered singing voice with nothing fancy going on
[Sings a verse of Second Hand Songs by Jonathan Turner]
As I said before, my voice is affected by testosterone so my chest voice is quite resonant and so gives a more impressive contrast, so I’ll start there. Despite my vocal range not going down particularly low, it still sounds impressively deep compared to normal when I speak or sing in chest voice. Even if your voice has not been affected by testosterone and won’t be so dramatic, you will have a chest voice that you can speak in to emphasise the deepest parts of your voice (Look for resources aimed at men with high voices and naturally transitioning trans guys for help with this [if you have recommendations for these, please suggest them in the comments!]).
[Humorous chest voice example sounding like a pretentious Shakespearian actor and Brian Blessed]
My go to song for singing in chest voice alone is Mmm mmm mmm mmm by the Crash Test Dummies:
[Sings a verse of that]
If you’re planning on taking testosterone, I recommend singing that every day to track your progress as it’ll be deeply satisfying when your chest resonance kicks in.
So head voice is cutting out the chest entirely and only talking from the head, and I can go even higher and push into falsetto which with my particular sounds kind of unnatural and babyish or like a cartoon character, but can be useful for hitting higher notes. Depending on what your range is like, your falsetto may sound totally different to mine and might be something you’ll use far more than me.
If you’re interested in learning how to do push your pitch up like that, search for tutorials aimed at helping trans women to find voices they’re comfortable with, there are some excellent and very effective tutorials out there [again, I'm looking for recommendations of resources to link to - please comment below!].
As an example of me singing in head voice without putting on any of the vocal techniques I’ll look at later, I’ll sing something that sounds almost like a choir boy:
[Sings a verse from Who Will Buy This Wonderful Morning from Oliver!]
Now you’ll have noticed while I was going in and out of those examples that it’s perfectly possible to start in the chest voice, raise the pitch, gradually add more and more head voice and take away chest voice until you’re talking in head voice alone. Obviously regardless of what vocal range you have, somewhere within that process will be your ‘androgynous pitch’.
It’s been my experience that although voice pitch is a gender cue, it’s not necessarily the highest point your voice goes but the range it covers. If you have a voice with audible chest resonance under it, it can be quite high and still perceived as male or androgynous.
If you’ve done any singing lessons you’ve probably been taught that mastering your chest and head voices is vital and the richest, most pleasing singing voices mix the qualities of both the head and chest voice into one unified sound. I’ve certainly found that this is something I tend to do when I’m singing androgynously, and you’ll likely hear that almost all the voices I’ll sing in (and the singers I’m mimicking) from now on have that quality to some degree.
As for speaking voice, my own speaking voice (as well as varying wildly in pitch depending on what I’m thinking and who I’m speaking to), having analysed it with a pitch range analysis computer program, has a low chest voice firmly in the male range and a high head voice that’s outside of the male range that I somehow unconsciously mix together as I speak. This results in my voice being surprisingly androgynous. Often if I’m passed between two people on the phone one may read me as female, the other as male. Which is annoying sometimes but also kind of brilliant as it means I’m ‘passing’ as androgynous.
Vocal gender cues aren’t just based on pitch. The average vocal ranges for adult female-assigned (not affected by testosterone) voices and male-assigned voices affected by testosterone overlap quite comfortably. There are plenty of well known female voices that are well within the male range and vice versa. Pitch is not the only signifier of gender – intonation, speech patterns, range, choice of words and degree of chest resonance are all factors. If we’re in that overlap then the way they speak, like an accent, is what causes people to read their voices as female or male.
For example, Joanna Lumley of Perdy from the Avengers and Patsy from Absolutely Fabulous has a particularly low voice that’s nonetheless perceived as female. That’s all down to intonation, speech patterns and a kind of whispery husky quality.
If you have a high voice, you could adopt aspects of the voice and intonations of Mick Jagger of The Rolling Stones – this voice is quite high but it’s kept quite flat and drawn out.
[Speaks 'in the voices' of each as demonstration]
Obviously those were both extremely exaggerated and quite poor impersonations, but I’m not trying to sound like them exactly, I’m trying to take on certain qualities of their voices. By learning to do that and listening to the results, you can find places you can push your voice that sound more like you while keeping those androgynous qualities. I recommend listening around for celebrities of the other binary gender to your assignment with a speaking pitch similar to the highest or lowest (which every you’re aiming for) pitch you’re able to comfortably speak in, then practice taking on aspects of their voices.
Mimicking androgynously toned singers
Now for singing voice, there are a number of singers who sing in an androgynous way and within the female/male pitch range overlap. Find one that fits into your range and work to perfect singing in that style. Yes, you’re doing an impersonation but you’re really not singing in someone else’s voice. You’ll notice that when I sing ‘as’ other singers, I still sound like myself, I’m still using my voice and putting my unique interpretation on the end result. So it starts as mimicry, but really you’re singing in your voice just finding new ranges and techniques that you can adopt, and making all of these songs and vocal styles your own. So well done!
James Blunt – Beautiful – Has quite a high voice
Tracy Chapman – Fast Car – Her voice is androgynous and lower than James Blunt’s
Nico – These Days – Her voice was useful to me as it involves going down to low notes without shifting into chest voice
Tori Amos – Cornflake Girl – Is in high tenor-ish range but firmly female sounding
Thom Yorke of Radiohead – Karma Police – Is in a similar range to Tori Amos but sounds male
Mama Cass Eliot – Dream A Little Dream of Me – Lower than Tori Amos and female sounding, could be more comfortable for lower voices to mimic
Soul music is often sung in a rich, multi-toned, androgynous style, for example a male singer and a female singer who have similar voices:
Aloe Blacc – I Need A Dollar
Nina Simone – Feeling good
If you want to learn the tropes of this vocal style, start with someone really exaggerated and work back to more natural sound, I personally learned to sing this way by impersonating Heather Small from M People.
Higher or thinner voices
If you have a higher voice and you’re looking for someone to mimic, try the legendary David McAlmont whose high male voice is mostly out of my range.
If you can only sing in a ‘thin’ high range, like a falsetto, you could find singers who have particularly high/reedy voice but manage to make that sound strong or androgynous. My favourite example of this are Skin from Skunk Anansie who talks in a surprisingly ‘small’ voice but has a bold ‘big’ singing voice:
Skin – Skunk Anansie – Brazen
And for a Male androgynous falsetto voice try icon Brian Molko from Placebo, my favourite of his is:
Placebo – 36 Degrees
If you have a female sounding ‘thinner’ high voice and you want to sound more male, try mimicking male singers with a classically falsetto sound. Jimmy Somerville is probably the archetypal example.
Once you’ve mastered singing in a more androgynous way, then talking that way becomes kind of trivial. People with speak impairments like stammers often learn to sing as speech therapy and then put themselves in a singing state of mind while talking (this also means you can pretend your entire life is musical theatre, fabulous dharling!)
If you’ve got good at singing in the styles or androgynous singers within your range, you shouldn’t have too much problem taking a singer outside your range and pushing the song into a range you can achieve. So if you come across other singers with androgynous vocal qualities you wish to emulate, try singing in their style but in a lower or higher key to match your voice. If this proves difficult, listen to other singers in the same genre (my go to genre seems to be soul, yours may well be different) and start by emulating one closer to your comfort point.
You should also be able to take the aspects of other voices you’ve sung in and apply them to songs by other people, so sing a well known song in the style of a different singer, or mix up all the qualities you like from the voices you’ve mimicked and the new aspects of your voice you’ve developed to sing an interpretation that’s uniquely yours.
Well that’s the end, I hope you’ve found my perspective helpful!
[I end by singing my own personal interpretation of the Christina Aguilera song Beautiful, which on listening back sounds like a mash up of Tracy Chapman and Alex Parks' styles]
Speaking voice as an accent or an impersonation
A tip I meant to include in the video but don’t seem to have mentioned is to suggest that intentionally mimicking a particular person or a particular accent can be helpful when trying to learn a new vocal pitch or speech pattern.
When you put on an accent or do an impression of someone, you’re moving your voice into another ‘character’ rather than trying to make your own voice sound different. So it may be helpful to conceptualise your androgynous voice in the same way, as a character or accent you can move in and out of (as you’ll have seen me do several times throughout the video, including several times where I get ‘stuck’ in the wrong one!).
I think it’s significant that trans women who transition in a different city or country to where they grew up often find that the accent they were surrounded by when undergoing speech therapy ‘sticks’ with their new voice but report that their pre-transition voice in the lower pitch remains associated with the accent they grew up with.
Giving your voice more or less of a ‘singsong’ quality
Generally people who have been socialised in a female gender role tend to have a more expressive and singsong quality to their voice, while those socialised in a male gender role tend to keep their voice constrained in a lower range. Female socialisation also encourages women to raise the pitch of their voices slightly when talking to someone in a friendly tone.
Resources aimed at helping trans women to ‘pass’ vocally should be helpful in giving you a toolbox or palette of vocal social gender cues that you can then intentionally play up or suppress as you balance the other cues in your voice like pitch, range and husky qualities (as explained in the video).
There are also resources aimed at men with high voices (something that is deemed to be negative in our gender conformist hetero/cisnormative society) who wish to deepen their voices and naturally transitioning trans guys looking to make their voices more easily perceived by others as male without taking testosterone. These may well also give you tips that you can play up or play down (or do the opposite of!) to balance whatever vocal gender cues you’re trying to negate or blur.
If you have recommendations for your favourite existing voice therapy or voice training resources, please share them in the comments below!
Other singers with androgynous voices
My favourite sound is soulful and I tended to go back to soul singers for my examples, but there are a lot of androgynous voices out there across all sorts of genres. Look for the genre that resonates with you, fits your personality and feels like your most authentic self-expression.
Here are some vocally androgynous singers I love to listen to:
David McAlmont – One of the most influential singers in my teenage years. I briefly tried to sing the McAlmont and Butler song Yes in the video then realised it was too high for my range.
Alison Moyet – One of the most often cited female vocalists with androgynous vocal qualities
Greg Gilbert of Delays – Indie guitar band with a higher pitched male vocalist with a pleasant sound
Tanita Tikaram – Female vocalist with a lower voice that has ‘sultry’ aspects
Chris Colfer of The Glee Cast – Famous for having an amazingly pure sounding high voice with an impressive range. Much like with David McAlmont, I can’t hit half the notes in the high end of his range
D. Lucille Campbell of Help Stamp Out Lonliness – Strikingly similar to Nico but sings in a contemporary Indie style
CN Lester – Genderqueer singer who sings early, classical and contemporary music. Their contemporary music tends to be in the high tenor range. (I recommend the song ‘Brackets’ on the EP Resurrection Men but all are fabulous)
Adèle Anderson of cabaret group Facinating Aida – Famous trans woman singer whose voice was affected by male puberty but is firmly female sounding. She sings the lower pitched parts in the female cabaret group
Antony Heggarty of Antony and the Johnsons – Mecury music award winning transgender singer who seeks ‘an equilibrium between the genders’. Has a distinctive androgynous sound in the high tenor range
Alex Parks – Not necessarily androgynous but has an incredibly distinctive voice, one of my favourite singers of all time (you can hear her influence in my closing song)
If you’re looking for pop music, I’m afraid that’s not really my genre but Darren Hayes of Savage Garden and the ubiquitous Justin Bieber come to mind.
As I keep saying, please suggest your own favourite vocally androgynous singers in the comments below!
Useful links and resources
Practical Androgyny: Vocal androgyny: Speaking voice - From the Practical Androgyny Tumblr (which you should all be following!), talks about the voice pitch range analysing software I mentioned in the video
CN Lester’s Singing and vocal production for trans guys – Video tutorial aimed at trans guys but likely to be useful for everyone [disclosure - CN has given me two singing lessons in the past]
TransgenderVoice.net: Genderqueer – The genderqueer section from a transgender-specialising speech therapist’s website
Transguys.com: Testosterone and the trans male singing voice - Fantastic article full of videos about the affects of testosterone on the singing voice and the best way to transition using testosterone without losing your singing voice (NB, assumes male identity)
The Straight Dope: “That was a guy singing?!” wrong calls on singers’ genders thread - Useful for finding more androgynous voices
Please suggest your own resources in the comments!
Update: CN Lester’s Trans Beauty: Vocal Edition part 1 was inspired by this article – Packed with classical music videos showcasing high male/androgynous roles and female tenors, baritones and basses!