I just read a fascinating article which lists some surprising reasons why women are more prone to vocal injury than men. With so many high-profile singers having to cancel or postpone shows this past year, the topics of vocal injury and vocal rehabilitation have been brought to the public's attention by the international media.
Yet there's been little discussion or public knowledge about the reasons that female singers have featured so prominently in the news. I'd like to thank Eric Hunter at the National Center for Voice & Speech (www.ncvs.org) for granting me permission to report on his article.
At puberty, the male larynx (voice-box) grows 20% longer (from front to back) compared to the female larynx. This results in female vocal folds being a whopping 60% shorter than in males, which accounts for our higher speaking and singing pitch. The higher the basic pitch, the more collisions per second are occurring; on average, female folds collide an additional 70 times each second during normal speech. That adds up! To make matters worse, male vocal folds are thicker by 20-30%. This extra tissue may protect the male fold by absorbing collision forces.
The quantity of collagen within vocal fold tissue differs between genders as well. When we raise vocal pitch, the vocal folds must lengthen and stiffen to produce high notes. This special material, collagen, helps the folds stiffen when the folds lengthen. The gist is that the more collagen you have in your vocal folds, the easier it is to sing high. Since females possess almost 60% less collagen in their folds, we ladies must stretch the tissue LONGER to achieve the required stiffness for high notes. This additional lengthening probably results in more effort and fatigue.Ever heard of hyaluronic acid (HA)? It's a substance that acts as a shock absorber. Know what's coming? Yes, men have more of it in all layers of their vocal folds. Women have much less in the top, more vulnerable layers, so we're more at risk for vocal fold injury and scarring.
Women complain of bloat, right? Well, in fact, men have MORE water throughout their bodies (male 59%, female 50%). More water in the body is GOOD for vocal fold function. There's more, much more, especially relating to hormonal fluctuations to which females are subject. But I thought the list above was depressing enough.
What's the take-away message from all this? Well, in case you were unsure, boys and girls ARE different and females are more prone to vocal injury simply because of physiological differences. Good singing technique, adequate hydration, vocal rest and proper speaking habits will help female professional voice users maintain their vocal health for a life-time. Be on alert for hoarseness...a sign of damage which should not be a desirable sound goal. Finally, my last tidbit of (probably obvious) advice: if it hurts, don't do it!
From: "Gender differences affecting vocal health of women in vocally demanding careers." Hunter, E. J., Tanner, K., Smith, Marshall (Logopedics Phonatrics Vocology, 2011; 36:128-136)