What really makes you sound “old”?
Ask someone how old people sound, and you’ll probably hear words like “hoarse,” “breathy,” or “weak.” However, it is becoming clear that such voice changes are not inevitable. A 2012 study found that elderly singers sound younger than people the same age (between 65 and 80 years of age) who do not sing. More specifically, shakiness and loudness were identified as significant predictors of how old you sound.
What factors did the researchers look at? “Singers” were defined as people who were currently involved in a choir, and had been for at least the past ten years. The singing and non-singing groups were also divided into male and female due to the obvious voice differences between genders. Four aspects of voice were examined in this study:
- Speaking pitch: The average pitch of a person’s voice.
- Jitter: Jitter describes the stability of voice pitch. A voice with a lot of jitter will have a lot of very fast variation in pitch, which often results in a “rough” sound.
- Intensity: The loudness of a person’s voice.
- Shimmer: Shimmer describes the stability of voice intensity. A voice with a lot of shimmer will have a lot of very fast soft-loud alternation.
Ten graduate students were asked to estimate how old speakers were based on 2 second clips of the speakers saying “ah.”
What did they find? There were no significant differences between singers and non-singers in pitch or shimmer. However, both male and female singers had significantly less jitter and were significantly louder than non-singers.
So, who sounded younger? Both male and female singers sounded significantly younger than their non-singing counterparts. Additionally, more jitter made people sound older for three of the four groups: male singers, male non-singers and female singers. For the remaining group, female non-singers, the only factor that affected their perceived age was intensity: in female non-singers, a softer voice sounded older. Intensity was not linked to perceived age for the other groups.
Other studies have suggested that pitch affects how old a person sounds, but this study did not find any correlation between pitch and how old a person sounded, nor did it find any difference between the pitches of singers and non-singers of either gender.
What does this mean for you? This study supports the idea that voice function does not have to decline with age. Much like physical exercise and bodily health, singing can improve your vocal functioning. Keeping your voice “healthy” can delay the changes associated with aging, which can in turn affect how you are perceived by both others and yourself. So, Sing in the shower and in the car. Join a choir or a band. To keep your voice sounding young – Sing!
Source: Prakup, B. (2012). Acoustic measures of the voices of older singers and nonsingers. Journal of Voice, 26 (3), 341-350.
Katherine Christ, honours Linguistics, Head of Research at Simone Friedman Speech-Language Services