This past week in my history class, we got to talking about a fascinating subject:
Oh, calm down.
You see, in ancient China, royal guards were often castrated to keep them from getting too friendly with the king’s many wives. Talk about paranoia. However, we are not here to discuss the pros and cons of polygamy amongst ancient royal families. There are far more interesting reasons for a person to undergo this drastic procedure. A lovely singing voice for instance.
That's right. Our class conversation somehow steered in the direction of the castrati, men who had been castrated in their youth to produce a unique singing voice considered very pleasant and desirable. In addition to the castration, these men underwent extremely rigorous training, and often achieved fame and fortune for their accomplishments. You can hear for yourself the eerie tones of a castrato's voice here.
But wait. What? I don't know about you, but I'm not completely buying this. This isn't my first time researching the inner workings of the human voice and it's all sounding a little suspect. Of course, I had to get to the bottom of the castrati's secrets.
Let's start with the basics. Vocal cords are two bands that run across your larynx (windpipe). When air passes these bands, they vibrate, creating sound. Variations in that sound come from changes in the tension of the bands, the force of the air passing through, and the resonance in your mouth. Lip and tongue movements shape the sound into words.
Got it? Bored? Okay, try this:
Male vocal cords are slightly larger than female vocal cords, which seems to account for the difference in male and female voices. However (here's where it gets good), there is an enormous amount of overlap in the possible range of sound for men and women, meaning there is little physiological reason for the drastic difference in voice. So why does it happen? Socialization. You heard me. Right alongside wearing pink and playing with Barbies, girls are taught through socialization what girls are supposed to sound like. Obviously, the same is true for boys. And like these other silly gender-linked behaviors, voice gender is fairly difficult to unlearn. Transgendered folks wishing to alter their voice must undergo some pretty serious vocal training to approximate a gendered voice that they weren't raised with, and hormone therapy doesn't make a difference.
But if hormone therapy doesn't help alter a gendered voice, how does castration - essentially a removal of testosterone from the male body - create such an enormous difference in the voices of the castrati?
Alright, now we're getting down to it. The secret of the castrati is... puberty.
During puberty, the hormones coursing through your body are making changes that are surprisingly not that gross, like causing your larynx to grow. This is what alters your voice from a child's high pitch to the voice of an adult. In biological males, that growth is more drastic and even causes the larynx to tilt at an angle that juts out from the neck - the Adam's apple. When a boy is castrated before this change occurs, it prevents this growth from happening as planned, resulting in the totally bizarre, child-like voice of the castrati.
Of course, the castrati no longer exist. Though there are some singers whose naturally occurring hormonal imbalances create a similar tone, today men just don't seem to be willing to sever their testicles for art. I wonder why?