Understanding the Ups and Downs of the Changing Voice


The period of voice change can be a confusing and difficult time for boy singers. Having knowledge of the change can be very useful for the singer and also bring positives within a choral ensemble. Dr Jenevora Williams guides us through the topic and provides some practical tips and advice on how conductors, teachers and parents can help.

When does a boy’s voice begin to change?

Adolescent voice change begins on average at 12 and a half years of age. It is, however, normal for the process to commence as young as 10 or as old as 14. Choral directors and singing teachers should regularly assess boys’ voices throughout this period to be aware of where each singer’s range sits most comfortably. Remember a boy’s biological age (one’s physiological rate of development) will not always align with their chronological age in years or their school year. It is therefore important for choral practitioners to avoid allocating boys into voice parts according to how old they are or what class/grade they happen to be in.

boys changing voices
All In Good Time’: the timeline for boys’ voice change can vary considerably from individual to individual

The best methods of range assessment

Over the course of the change some boys may still be able to sing with a wide vocal range. These boys may notice that they can now sing new lower notes whilst also maintaining the ability to sing higher notes. This can sometimes give a misleading view of the natural register of the voice (more on that later.) One of the most reliable ways to discover a boy’s vocal range is to listen to their speaking voice, for it is the speaking voice that gives a clear indication of the voice’s stage of development.

Here’s how to do it
  • Listen to the boy speaking, asking him to use a normal conversational voice, nothing too dramatic or animated, the calmer the better. You can give the boy a simple task like counting backwards or reciting the days of the week.
  • The teacher should hum along quietly, matching the pitch that the boy is using. You will soon ‘tune in’ to a specific pitch.
  • Find this pitch on the piano and take note of it. This will be their ‘average speaking pitch’.
  • As we speak low in our overall vocal register, you can be fairly sure that the lowest comfortable singing note will be about a third below this.

average speaking pitch changing voice
‘Tuning In’: vocal range assessment based on average speaking pitch is quick, easy and very effective

So, from this we can deduce that the larynx is at its most comfortable near to the bottom of its overall pitch range. This doesn’t mean that it’s wrong to try and extend it; that’s why we learn vocal technique, in order to sing comfortably, safely and with exciting results!

Another helpful indicator of forthcoming voice change is — wait for it — shoe size! Feet undergo growth spurts ahead of the other bones of the body. This is to help with balance as the person grows, and why teenage boys can appear to have unusually large feet which seem to look normal again by the time they are 17 or so. If an adolescent boy has recently moved up a shoe size or two this may indicate a full body growth spurt is soon to follow and with that a change in vocal register. This indicator can be an especially useful tool to flag up the first stages of vocal transition, a time when a boy’s range is transitioning but his vocal timbre may not change a whole lot.

There is also an increasing number of apps coming on stream to help identify the pitch of the user’s speech. These ‘voice pitch analyzers’ are generally easy to use and have the advantage that the boy can have it on his or a parent’s phone to track his own changes over time.

The Cooksey Chart

The research of American academic Dr John Cooksey in the field of boys’ voice change has become indispensable to the choral and vocal community. Cooksey found that, in general, there are five stages of vocal development that occurred during the change. Specific ages are not assigned to these stages; these, as mentioned earlier, can occur at different times (usually in conjunction with a growth spurt) depending on the development of the individual. It should also be noted here that transgender males undergoing hormone treatment will go through largely the same stages of vocal change outlined below.

cooksey chart changing voices
Fig 1. The Cooksey Chart: the unfilled notes indicate the average singing range, the filled notes the speaking range and the diamond notes the average speaking pitch.

Linking stages of vocal development to singing

As a rule, boys in voice change should sing in their lowest comfortable pitch range. Remember, the lowest comfortable singing note is nearly always a third below their speaking pitch. The highest singing note will vary considerably between individuals.

Once a boy has reached Stage III the voice loses its treble character and can often take on a speaking quality (chest voice). The voice at this point in the change is at its most vulnerable and unstable, with some boys having less than an octave to work with.

As a rule, boys in voice change should sing in their lowest comfortable pitch range.

One issue to deal with is the one where boys continue to sing high pitches when their speaking voice is dropping. (Unfortunately, this can often be at the behest of a conductor.) Boys with good vocal technique are often tempted to do this, being able to produce a strong and musical soprano range, even when their speaking voice might suggest they are a young baritone.

This is because the larynx is still quite flexible at this point. The cartilages of the larynx are growing rapidly but remain softer than adult larynx cartilages (the ‘box’ part of the voice-box). The singer carries on singing the higher pitches that they are accustomed to, even though the muscles and vocal mechanism are growing longer and larger. The problem here is that the demands on the larynx become more and more extreme. If the boy continues to sing soprano during voice change, at some point the whole system will collapse and the boy will have a wobbly few months vocally and also run the risk of developing physical and technical vocal issues as a consequence.

changing voices
Continuing to sing high pitches when voice change is well-established can lead to vocal issues


There has been scientific research into this topic in Australia, Germany, Sweden, UK and US amongst others. The research considered both the short and long-term implications for vocal development. All of the research concludes that boys should not sing exclusively in the upper ranges during voice change.

All of the research concludes that boys should not sing exclusively in the upper ranges during voice change.

Notice that the research refers to ‘exclusive’ use of the upper range. Occasional use is fine, in fact it can encourage flexibility in the upper ranges. So, it’s ok for young tenors to sing some notes in falsetto. It’s ok for all adolescent boys to use falsetto in their warm-ups, and it is often an artistic requirement from time to time in pop or musical theatre singing. What is crucial is that with a rapidly-growing and vulnerable voice, the main body of the singing is within the fundamental comfort zone i.e. at the lower end of the individual’s pitch range.

How does this feed into assigning parts?

The Cambiata model gives suggested groupings for boys during voice change. Below are suggestions for groupings in two, three and four parts. If you just have a handful of boys and you want them to sing one part, the most commonly useable octave is C3 to C4. It’s safer to aim a bit too low than too high.

The Simple Cambiata Choir option is aimed primarily at singers in the early stages of voice change. Although 3-part Mixed and some SAB repertoire can work, mixed-voice repertoire for this cohort is lacking.

Simple Cambiata Choir (approx. ages 13-15)

The Intermediate Cambiata Choir covers stages II to V. TBB and TTB repertoire work very well here, as does mixed voice repertoire with suitable divisi.

Intermediate Cambiata Choir (approx. ages 13 to 16)

The Advanced Cambiata Choir also covers stages II to V, however, with one further part for Tenor 2. TTBB repertoire is excellent here as the ranges will often match the pitch ranges below. Mixed voice repertoire with divisi also works well to keep the parts within their comfortable zone.

Advanced Cambiata Choir (approx. ages 13 to 16)

Adult Repertoire

A young man’s voice will continue to develop physically for many more years, not settling until his early to mid twenties. Nevertheless, once a boy is beyond Stage V of the Cooksey model, he can more comfortably sing traditional SATB settings. Until this time, it is wise to avoid having boys with changing voices sing SATB music written with adult voices in mind, which use extended Tenor and Bass ranges.

ideas to help boys with changing voices
Aside from good score selection there are things a choir director can do to help

Working with what you have

When working with boys who are going through their voice change, ensuring that your singers have parts that they can comfortably sing is more important than details of harmonic integrity! Flexibility is paramount here; every group will be different, and individuals can change month-by-month. Here are some useful things you can do to help:

  • Assess regularly and encourage singers to come to you if they feel uncomfortable singing their part
  • Although it may be disruptive, allow singers to change part mid-term — it’s the right thing to do for their vocal health and their overall sense of contribution and enjoyment
  • If you have lots of singers, choosing music with more lower-voice parts can be better than fewer, due to the narrower ranges of the divisi parts
  • Alter elements of the music to suit e.g. changing the highest or lowest notes in a part to another harmony note
  • Give high tenor notes to the altos

Desire to sing

Going through the voice change can be a difficult, confusing, and sometimes traumatic time for singers. As teachers, conductors and parents we should try to be informative, understanding and encouraging at this time. It is the same willing and talented singers that are there in front of us, full of a desire to sing and to continue to grow musically — we just need to place a stepping stone or two for them, helping them to navigate through this special journey.

Dr Jenevora Williams is a passionate pedagogue and a leading exponent in the field of vocal health and singing teaching. She was the first singing teacher to be awarded a PhD in voice science in the UK, and won the 2010 BVA Van Lawrence Prize for her outstanding contribution to voice research.

Jenevora has taught singing at the Royal College of Music Junior Department and Yehudi Menuhin School, has written articles for journals including the Journal of Voice and also has chapter contributions in The Oxford Handbook of Singing and The Oxford Handbook of Music Education. Her book ‘Teaching Singing to Children and Young Adults’, published by Compton Publishing, has sold several thousand copies worldwide.

jenevora williams changing voices

Cover Photo: National Youth Choirs of Great Britain

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