Mutation Of The Voice

The anatomical and physiological changes which occur in the larynx at

puberty have been described in the chapter on "Physiology of the Voice."

It may be added that at this period the resonance cavities also undergo

considerable alteration in size and form.

As childhood is left behind the individual emerges. Divergences in face,

in form and in mental characteristics become emphasized. The traits of

race an
family are manifested and self-consciousness becomes more

acute. This period of development, bringing as it does so much

disturbance to the vocal organs, is particularly inimical to singing;

and yet public school music is expected to produce its most elaborate

results in those grades where the pupils are just about to enter, or are

passing through this period of rapid growth and change. The singing in

such grades may be discussed with reference first to the singing of

girls and then to that of boys.

The vocal organs of girls often develop so gradually in size, and with

so little congestion of the laryngeal substance, that no aversion is

manifested to singing. In other cases the inflamed condition of the

vocal organs is shown by the hoarseness which follows their use, and the

huskiness of the singing-tone. The voices of nearly all during the

mutation period show more volume of tone on the lower tones and

evidences of strain at the higher tones.

It is a good plan to put girls who show throat-weakness, characteristic

of their age, upon that part which requires only a medium range of

tones, and to repress all inclination to force and push the voice. The

desire which girls often express to sing the upper soprano need not

affect the teacher to any great extent. A multitude of strong and

constantly-shifting ambitions are thronging through their minds. Some

wish to sing the highest part because it seems to them to be the most

prominent part; some wish to sing it because they can do so with the

least mental effort, and so on. These whims and wishes must be treated

tactfully, but if the teacher is sure that a certain course is right,

there is no alternative but to carry it out, with as little friction as

may be. Large voices, that is, voices that proceed from large resonance

cavities, are often badly strained at this period of life by too loud

and too high singing. It must not for a moment be forgotten that the age

is a critical one for vocal effort, and a strain that the adult woman's

voice will endure with apparent impunity may produce lasting evil

effects on the voice of a girl of from fourteen to sixteen years of age.

If the requirements of the music are such that pitches above F, the

fifth line G clef, must be occasionally sung, let the voices upon the

part sing lightly. If some of the girls are put upon the lower of three

parts, do not let them use the chest-voice, which is just beginning to

develop, otherwise than lightly also.

The boy's voice may change from the soprano to a light bass of eight or

twelve tones in compass in a few months, or the change may extend over

two or three years; that is, two or three years may elapse after the

first distinct break before there is any certainty of vocal action in

the newly-acquired compass. When the voice changes rapidly, all singing

should be stopped. Really, in such cases, boys cannot sing even if they

attempt to do so.

They are so hoarse, and the pitch alternates so unexpectedly between an

"unearthly treble and a preternatural bass" that a boy can usually sing

only in monotone, if, with courage proof against the ridicule occasioned

by his uncontrollable vocal antics, he tries to join in. In those cases,

where the larynx undergoes a slow change in growth, it is often possible

for the boy to sing all through the period of change. The upper tones

may be lost, while there is a corresponding gain of lower tones. This

process, in many cases, goes on slowly and with so little active

congestion of the larynx that the voice changes from soprano to alto,

and thence to tenor almost imperceptibly. Voices which change in this

way often become tenor, but not invariably.

The question now arises, Should those boys who can sing while the voice

is breaking be required to take part in school singing exercises?

In Browne and Behnke's work, "The Child Voice," to which allusion has

been made, there is given a resume of 152 replies to the question: Have

you ever known of boys being made to sing through the period of puberty,

and, if so, with what result?

The answers were:

Forty correspondents have no knowledge.

Five think the voice is improved by the experiment.

Ten quote solitary instances where no harm has arisen.

Ten know of the experiment having been made, and consider it has caused

no harm to the voice.

Eight mention results so variable as to admit of no conclusion.

Seventy-nine say the experiment causes certain injury, deterioration

or ruin to the after voice, and of this number ten observe that they

have suffered disastrous effects in their own person.

These answers were from English choirmasters, organists, music teachers,

singers, etc. It will be noticed that only fifteen of those who give a

positive opinion upon the subject think that boys can sing through the

period of break safely; while seventy-nine are positive that the result

is unsafe. The other replies are vague.

It must be remembered that many of the opinions are those of instructors

in cathedral schools, where one or two rehearsals and a daily church

service means a great deal of singing; while other answers come from

choirmasters who require of their boys equally hard work, though less in


Every individual voice must be judged by itself, if such demands as

choir-singing are made upon it; and, while there are some cases, as

every choirmaster will probably agree, where no perceptible injury

results from singing during the change, the rule is that even when

possible, it is very unsafe.

But the daily time given to singing in schools is very short; the work

bears no comparison with choir-singing. It might almost be thought as

necessary to forbid reading and talking during the break of voice as to

forbid its use in a daily drill of fifteen or twenty minutes in singing.

Certainly it is absurd to advocate entire non-use of the voice at this

period in either speech or song. It is rather correct to guard against

its misuse. If boys have up to this time used only the thick register,

they will in singing through the break intensify their bad habits;

throatiness, harshness, nasality will become chronic. This would be bad

enough, but each bad vocal habit results from the abnormal use of the

vocal organs, and occasions hoarseness, chronic sore throat, catarrh,


It is quite customary in school music to assign the boys to the lower

part, in part music. This practice continued from the time part-singing

begins in the music course, compels the boys to use the thick register.

As the larynx gains in firmness from year to year, they experience more

and more difficulty with their upper tones-- those lying from F to C.

Having used only the thick voice in all their school singing, they know

of no other, and very likely consider the thin voice which they are now

obliged to use in singing the higher tones as altogether too girlish for

the prospective heirs of manly bass tones.

The reluctance of boys to sing the soprano would be amusing were it not,

in the light of utterly false training, so pitiful.

School music is educational; its scope is controlled by those in charge.

The public expects good educational, rather than show work, and employs

those to supervise and teach who are supposed to know what good

educational work is in vocal music.

The supposition that children's voices can, owing to individual

differences analogous to those existing among adults, be divided into

alto and soprano voices, is erroneous; children can most assuredly sing

in parts, but the quality of tone which in the woman's voice is called

alto or contralto cannot be secured for certain physical reasons

previously explained; and the use of the chest-tone, which resembles the

adult woman's chest-voice as a clarinet resembles a viola, is wholly


If, however, the voices have been trained in the use of the thin

register only, the management of the boy's voice during the change is

simplified; the influence of good vocal habits will be felt; the vocal

bands which have never been strained will respond when their condition

admits of tone-production. The boy who has been accustomed to sing with

an easy action of the vocal ligaments and with open throat will at once

become conscious of any unusual strain or wrong adjustment in the vocal

organs. If he has learned to sing well, he has also learned not to sing


The test to apply to the subject of boys' singing in school during the

break may be: Can they sing without strain or push? Can they sing

easily, or does it hurt? There is a certain amount of humbug in boys

that must be allowed for, but it does not affect calculations as to

their singing-powers more than upon their other abilities, if singing is

well taught.

The speaking-voice also indicates the state of the vocal organs, and

shows the effect of the break sooner than does the singing-voice. If the

tones in speech are steady in pitch, singing is possible in all

probability. If, on the contrary, the speaking-voice is croaky and

wavering, singing is difficult, if not impossible. As the object of the

study of vocal music in the public schools, in so far as it relates to

the treatment of the voice, is to develop good vocal habits, not bad

ones, it follows that if boys sing during the break it must be only upon

those tones which lie within their compass at any time, and that the

vocal organs must be used lightly, and without strain.

In nearly every upper grade room there will be a percentage of boys

whose voices are in a transition stage, some of whom can sing and others

of whom cannot. It requires judgment and tact to handle these voices,

but if boys have sung as they should up to this period, and have taken

pleasure in it, the mutual good understanding between them and their

teacher need not be disturbed. They are likely to do their best.

In this connection it should be said, that really it may be doubted if

the common practice of assigning all boys, whose voices show signs of

breaking, to the bass part, is right.

If boys have been kept upon the lower part, in all part singing and have

never used other than the thick chest voice, then, when the voice begins

to break up, it may be that they must sing bass or not sing at all. Boys

trained in this way have never used the soprano head register and so if

they sing alto, it will be with the thick chest voice of boyhood, which

will now be the upper tones of the developing man's voice.

Singing alto at the mutation period in this manner, strains the vocal

bands beyond reason, and should not under any circumstances be allowed.

It must be understood then in what follows, that singing alto in this,

the chest voice, either before or during the break, is unqualifiedly


But we will suppose now that boys have been permitted to sing only in

the head register, that they have been assigned to the upper part in

part singing, for notwithstanding that usage is to the contrary, this is

what should be done. As has already been suggested the voices of girls

change less, and at a younger age than do boys, and they begin to show

weight of tone and increased volume, at an age when boys are at their

best as sopranos. Girls at this period should sing the middle and lower

parts, but it must be said in passing that much of the music contained

in our text-books ranges too low in pitch for them, or any voice except

a low contralto or a tenor. They must not be permitted to use their

voices at full strength, and special care should be taken of those who

at this age show hoarseness. With girls as with boys, the change is

accompanied with periods of great relaxation of the vocal bands, and

during these periods the singing tone is either very light, or very


Returning to the subject of treatment of boys' voices during mutation,

and premising that they have sung only in the head voice during

childhood, the question arises whether they are not in many cases set to

singing bass prematurely. It is obvious that during this period the

voice is actually broken, divided in two. The lower notes are produced

in the chest or man's register, while more or less of the boy's voice

remains as upper tones. These tones, by the way, never are lost, they

remain as the falsetto or head voice of the man.

Now the vibratory action of the vocal ligaments is much larger for the

chest voice than for the head, or as we ordinarily call it, the

falsetto. There is then no question that during mutation a boy can

confine himself to the use of his old voice, or so much of it as is

available at any time with very little strain. The tone will be light,

in fact, during the active periods of laryngeal growth which

characterize mutation, there will perhaps be no voice at all, owing to

the congestion of the parts, but in the periods of rest separating the

periods of growth, the vocal bands will respond. The compass of the head

voice at this time varies largely, but it corresponds pretty closely to

that of the second soprano, in three part exercises, or from C to C. If

it is attempted to carry the voice down it changes to the chest register

unless used very lightly.

Without attempting then to lay down positive rules for treating a voice

which consists of fragments of voices, the above suggestions are made in

the hope that they may receive the consideration of teachers and