This article was originally published on VICE Netherlands.
We often associate getting older with physical changes, like wrinkles, grey hair or our flesh submitting to the force of gravity. But the body doesn't just show its age through extra lines and new aches in previously unknown body parts – you can hear it, too.
Singer Shirley Collins is a remarkable example. In the 1960s and 70s, Collins was known for her vulnerable, high-pitched voice, showcased in haunting folk songs. But after a 38-year break, 81-year-old Collins returned with a new album in 2016 – and she sounded like a completely different person, with a deep, low-pitched voice.
So how and when do our voices start to sound older? We called up Michel de Kort, a Dutch choir conductor and vocal coach who also works as a speech therapist, to find out.
VICE: Do we know why our voices age with us?
Michel de Kort: Well, we know a fair amount, but not nearly everything. Older people are prone to excess mucus; they produce more of it. Their voice often becomes less robust and more creaky.
So everything softens.
Yes, that’s essentially behind the process of vocal ageing. The connective tissue in the entire body weakens. When you age, you lose muscle mass and volume, which makes the voice weaker. Other vocal issues can also arise. If the vocal cords separate a bit and no longer connect, you get presbyphonia. It causes you to sound hoarse, or have a weaker voice.
When do people’s voices start to age?
I can’t answer that definitively, but it usually starts around the age of 60 to 70. It also depends on where the person is from. Dutch, for example, is a very throaty language. I work in a hospital in Uden, in the province of Brabant [in the south of the Netherlands], and people there speak very much from their throat [Michel imitates someone from Brabant, his voice sounding thin and pinched]. What I’m doing right now is reducing the amount of space in my mouth and my throat, which is inherent in the dialect of that area. It very quickly starts to sound creaky, so that sound is a lot more common with people with that dialect.
So how old your voice sounds also has to do with your particular accent or dialect?
Yes. It makes my work difficult, but interesting. You’re continually trying to figure out if vocal issues are age-related or if they’re caused by the way the person uses their voice. Many people in this area [of the Netherlands] speak in a particular way. Very rural people, you often don’t understand what they’re saying at all. The solution is often to articulate better using the lips. That usually makes a big difference.
Do people who work in radio or TV ever come to see you?
Yes, they often put a lot of strain on their voice. I don’t teach them about preventing vocal changes or ageing, but do I tell them how to make best use of their current voice. Your voice is an instrument that changes over time. Some women who enter menopause, for instance, lose the higher notes. You can’t do anything about that, so it’s better go along with it and shift to a different voice type.
When you’re talking to a stranger on the phone, can you guess their age from their voice?
How old am I?
Umm… somewhere between 35 and 50?
I’m a bit older. People easily guess wrong. I know a lot about vocal technique, so I apply that and activate my higher notes [to sound younger]. You do the same when you’re on the phone, whether you’re aware of it or not. With you, I hear a secure and lively voice and intonation – you could be in your twenties, or thirties.
You’re right, I’m in my twenties.
Okay, so when you get older, it’s good to know how you can turn those things on to shift the sound of your voice.
With the right technique you can sound younger?
Absolutely. I treated an older man a while back who began to sound different pretty much right away. His wife, who had come in with him, started to cry. “You sound like you used to!” she said.
Are certain languages better for the voice than others?
Sometimes. Certain people’s voices improve when they speak English or French, because those are much more open-sounding languages.
This article originally appeared on VICE NL.