The Queen’s Christmas message from 2017 has a nice juxtaposition of her current voice and how she sounded 60 years earlier (about 45 seconds into the video below). How has her voice changed? And why have women’s voice pitch dropped in recent decades?
The first thing I take from hearing the two Christmas messages is how robust the voice is to the effects of ageing. Because we talk everyday, we keep the muscles and neurons controlling the muscles in relatively good condition. For most of us, other visible signs of old age such as wrinkles and grey hair come will along much sooner than the audible sounds of vocal ageing.
There is also a subtle change in the Queen’s accent, but what I’m going to concentrate on is the change in pitch. This has dropped by about a semitone every decade. This quantification of her voice pitch comes from a fascinating study by Ulrich Reubold
and colleagues at the University of Munich. They examined recordings of famous voices from the BBC archive . The Queen’s Christmas Message is a great documentation of one person’s voice through adulthood. Below is one of Reubold’s graphs showing how the pitch of the Queen’s voice has lowered.
Changes in the voice due to ageing come about for a variety of reasons . The anatomy controlling the lungs ages, leading to changes in how the breath supports speaking. Muscles that control talking degenerate, neurological control of the muscles gets worse and there are physical changes to the vocal cords as well. Added to that, the larynx is entirely ossified by the time we’re in our mid-sixties and also probably lower in our throat. Despite this long and depressing list, most voices keep going in remarkably good nick.
But voices can change for reasons that have nothing to do with ageing. For instance, there has been a general lowering in the voice pitch of women’s voices over the second half of the twentieth century. One reason for this appears to be women lowering their voices as they assume more powerful roles in society. There is a cultural bias that means a lower pitch is associated with a person appearing to be stronger, having more integrity and competence. It is thought this arises because more males are in leadership positions and so our brains miss-associate lower pitched voices with powerful people. Mary Beard, professor of classics at the University of Cambridge, has bemoaned the need for females to become ‘freakish androgynes’ to get their voice heard. I couldn’t agree more. Hopefully as more women take their rightful place in leadership positions, this miss-learnt heuristic between pitch and power will disappear, and women will be free to be authoritative with their natural vocal pitch.
You can read more about voice and gender in my book Now You’re Talking. Or listen to more about the ageing voice in a programme I presented for BBC Radio 4 called Life’s Soundtrack.
 Reubold, U., Harrington, J. and Kleber, F., 2010. Vocal aging effects on F0 and the first formant: A longitudinal analysis in adult speakers. Speech Communication, 52(7-8), pp.638-651.
 Kreiman, J. and Sidtis, D., 2011. Foundations of voice studies: An interdisciplinary approach to voice production and perception. John Wiley & Sons.