APR 29, 2019 6:00 PM PDT

Are Voices Genetic?

WRITTEN BY: Annie Lennon

One of the most defining characteristics of a human is their voice: its pitch, how it resonates and of course, the vocal range. But where does it come from? How much are our voices genetic, and how much are they influenced by environmental factors like language and culture?

So far, there is little research on how much genetics contributes to our voice (Sataloff: 1995). Despite this, at least some of the vocal similarities between family members are suspected to come from shared DNA for laryngeal anatomy, as in every other physical characteristic (Kampwirth, 2013). Yet, as people who are related generally grow up together, it can be difficult to separate which factors have a genetic source, and which have an environmental source (University of Iowa).

Despite this however, one genetic difference clearly impacts the voice: sex. Males have larger vocal folds than females. This means that they typically have deeper voices than females even before adolescence. Stretched along the larynx (the voice box), when air is brought up from the lungs to speak, the vocal cords vibrate, thus creating sound. The length, size and tension among them determines their fundamental frequency, averaging at around 125 Hz in men, 210 Hz in women and around 300 Hz in children. The higher the fundamental frequency of a voice, the higher its pitch (Kampwirth, 2013).

The language we speak also seems to have a big impact on our voices. Studies on Cantonese and Mandarin speakers found that the native language of a person affects the fundamental frequency at which they distinguish, interpret and reproduce sounds. For example, Cantonese speakers are better able to produce tones commonly found in Cantonese than people who speak Mandarin are (Liu et al.: 2010). This suggests that our native language fundamentally shapes the way we can use our vocal cords, and thus how we can use our voices.

This is further supported by evidence from the University of Tampere, Finland. A study conducted in 2017, showed that people are more likely to achieve vocal fatigue when speaking a foreign language, as more mental and physical effort is required to produce foreign sounds than those they are used to in their native language (Javinen: 2017).

Our voices are also affected by other environmental factors. Emotional states are one example of this. When excited, nervous or frightened, the muscles supporting the larynx tend to contract involuntarily. This increased tension then produces a higher, unsteady pitch. Although temporary for as long as the emotional state exists, it may go some way to explain why voices differ between different cultures. For example, calmer, more introverted cultures such as those in Scandinavia, may generally have a softer tone, whereas those in more extroverted environments such as in Latin America, may access emotions such as excitement, nervousness and fright more frequently, and thus have a different tone, or voice.

Health is also an important factor when determining the sound of a voice. For example, a cold virus causes vocal cords to swell, meaning they rub together and rasp our speech. Likewise, pollution, an overly dry climate, smoking, drinking alcohol and shouting too much also affect the voice by straining the larynx.

Age is also a factor that puts strain on the vocal cords. Over time, the vocal cords and their surrounding muscles lose their strength and elasticity, with their mucus membranes becoming thinner and drier. These physical changes lead to elderly voices generally having a lower volume, shakiness and less endurance.

To conclude, although it is uncertain how much genetics contributes to our voice, genetics definitely play a role at least in the structure of our larynx and vocal cords, as well as our sex. Yet, environmental differences seem to play a large role in how they’re defined too. From native language and culture to illness and age, when taken together, these factors may arguably have an even larger role in defining our voices than our genetics.


 

Citations


Sataloff, PubMed.gov

Kampwirth, mentalfloss.com

The University of Iowa, uiowa.edu

Liu et al. The Journal of the Acoustical Society of America

Jarvinen: University of Tampere

 

About the Author
  • Science writer with keen interests in technology and behavioral biology. Her current focus is on the interplay between these fields to create meaningful interactions, applications and environments.
You May Also Like
JUL 27, 2020
Genetics & Genomics
Pediatric Cancer Mutations Show the Importance of Non-Coding Regions
JUL 27, 2020
Pediatric Cancer Mutations Show the Importance of Non-Coding Regions
A new computational tool was created by scientists at CHOP and it has now revealed new mutations that are linked to five ...
SEP 11, 2020
Genetics & Genomics
A Better Understanding of Telomere Length Throughout the Body
SEP 11, 2020
A Better Understanding of Telomere Length Throughout the Body
Telomeres cap the ends of chromosomes. They work to protect the chromosomes from degradation, and are known to get short ...
SEP 21, 2020
Genetics & Genomics
Replicating the Genome With a Twist
SEP 21, 2020
Replicating the Genome With a Twist
Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory scientists have used cryo-EM to learn more about how the human genome is replicated.
OCT 03, 2020
Cell & Molecular Biology
Growing an Organism From One Cell
OCT 03, 2020
Growing an Organism From One Cell
Scientists have used model organisms to view the first few hours of development in various organisms. A single cell is f ...
OCT 05, 2020
Genetics & Genomics
A Rare Form of Dementia is Discovered
OCT 05, 2020
A Rare Form of Dementia is Discovered
There are different types of dementia, a term for a loss of cognitive function, including Alzheimer's disease and Le ...
OCT 24, 2020
Cannabis Sciences
Researchers Identify Two DNA Regions Behind Cannabis Abuse
OCT 24, 2020
Researchers Identify Two DNA Regions Behind Cannabis Abuse
Researchers at the Washington School of Medicine in St. Louis have identified two regions in our DNA that seem to contri ...
Loading Comments...