Not Always Glee-ful: The Change in a Young Man’s Voice

About Dr. Reena Gupta

Dr. Reena Gupta is the Director of the Division of Voice and Laryngology at OHNI. Dr. Gupta has devoted her practice to the care of patients with voice problems. She is board certified in otolaryngology and laryngology and fellowship trained in laryngology, specializing in the care of the professional voice.

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It’s a well-known fact that television shows about high school feature actors that haven’t seen the inside of a high school classroom for almost a decade (or more).  Part of the reason is likely that high school boys are obviously still in high school, studying.  There are many other reasons of course but in the case of the hit television show, Glee, this may partly have to do with the men’s voices.

This show is unique in that it doesn’t feature pretty faces lip synching; it actually features the actors’ voices.  And these voices are rich and varied: a tenor as crisp and clear as a bell, a rich bass, and a full baritone.  These voices belong to a male cast whose average age is in the mid-twenties.  It is difficult to find this spectrum of depth and talent among actual high school-aged boys because of the obvious reason: these boys are going through voice maturation.

Often a very difficult time in a young man’s life, the change in voice has significant social and emotional impact.  But what of the young male singer, who has used his voice on a higher level and now finds his instrument changed and hard to access? This change presents a whole new challenge, one that is not often considered because of its temporary nature.  But these young men often fall out of singing during this period, both because of frustration with their voices and the lack of opportunities to develop and understand their voices.  They are often “put on performing hold” until their voices find placement again.  This year-long forced hiatus often pushes many young men out of the arts altogether.

Why do men’s voices change?

With the onset of puberty, hormone levels in the body rise, causing changes in most organs, including the brain, muscle, skin, hair, and of course, the voice.  While both genders experience changes in the larynx (voice box), the male’s larynx changes much more.

Some of these shifts include:

    • Increase in size of larynx, including protrusion forward of the “Adam’s apple”
    • Lengthening of vocal folds* caused by increase in larynx size and forward protrusion
    • Thickening of the lining of the vocal folds
    • Increased bulk of thyroarytenoid muscle, resulting in increased vertical thickness of the vocal fold and bulging of the vibratory edge**
    • Change in pitch by one octave
    • Larynx drops lower in neck, increasing the space in the pharynx (throat), changing vocal timbre
    • Expansion of the chest (increase in vocal endurance)

*The increased length of the vocal folds is likely the most important factor in the male voice change

**This results in a longer period of glottal closure (or vocal fold contact) and increased amplitude of vibration, resulting in a richer voice

How long does it take for the male’s voice to “settle”?

There is a range but, on average, this takes 3-6 months.  1 year is considered the maximum expected time from onset to completion of voice change and this is usually done by age 15.

Unfortunately, the singing voice may take 1-2 years to completely mature.

Is there anything I can do to make the change happen faster?

There is nothing that can “speed up” nature.  However, it has been found that singers, because they study the voice and are more in tune with their voices, can often control their voices better.  Consider singing lessons if you are interested in improving the stability of your voice.

When should I be worried?

There are several instances in which you should seek medical care, preferably by a laryngologist, for your changing voice.  Concerning symptoms include:

  • Pain with speaking or singing
  • Very dramatic and abrupt change (may signal hemorrhage)
  • Prolonged time for voice to settle*

*Some young men become concerned after only 1 month of voice instability; others wait years.  The right time to come is the time at which you are concerned.  Do not be falsely alarmed or reassured by averages or “normals.”


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