In 2014 Aretha Franklin released her first album since 1985: Aretha Franklin Sings the Great Diva Classics. Whether critics praised it or panned it, they wanted to talk about age.  

“At age 72,” the Boston Globe’s Steve Morse wrote,Franklin can still shut down the competition with a breathtaking, gospel-trained grace and power.

Paste’s Hillary Saunders heard something else: “on the over-overdubbed tracks . . . it seems like the production is trying to overcompensate for Franklin’s age, rather than letting her natural talent and passion shine.”

It’s undeniable that Franklin’s voice has changed since the 1960s when she emerged as a soul superstar. Today her vibrato is more prominent and less controlled than when she was younger. Her breath is more audible. She sounds different and, arguably, older.

But how and why do these vocal changes happen? What does aging mean for singers whose voices are their livelihoods? And what happens when singers fight those changes or embrace them and turn the sound of aging into the sound of authority, maturity, and power?

Vocal sound is produced when airflow from your lungs causes your vocal folds (mucous membranes located in the larynx) to vibrate. You use your mouth, tongue, lips, and palate (or “articulators”) to shape the resulting sound. The timbre of a voice is thus the product of multiple parts of your body working together. A change to any one part might change the sound of your voice.

Think of how your voice changes when you have a cold. The increased fluid in your sinuses fills the space where your voice resonates. When you talk, your vocal folds vibrate. If you have a sore throat, you might speak more softly to reduce that vibration.

Or consider what happens as children grow up. Both boys’ and girls’ voices change as they age. As the vocal folds get longer and thicker, voices get lower.

That vocal change continues throughout our lives because our bodies continue to change. And by the time we hit old age, we begin to experience even more significant changes. R.J. Baken’s  clinical studies on vocal production in the elderly have shown that aging leads to a loss of tissue mass in the vocal folds and hardening of the cartilage in the larynx. That in turn increases the tension in the vocal folds and the speed at which they vibrate.

The results? Diminished volume, diminished flexibility, breathiness, and tremulousness.

However, voices aren’t limited by anatomy: they’re  shaped by how we learn to use our bodies. UCLA Musicology Professor Nina Eidsheim, calls these processes “inner choreographies:” the small bodily movements that happen below the skin and that we use, consciously or unconsciously, to shape the sounds of our voices.

Sometimes these inner choreographies are deliberate. Singers, for instance, might undergo training that teaches them to move their tongues, lips, or abdominal muscles in order to create a specific sonic effect. But many of our inner choreographies are involuntary. Think about how each language requires speakers to form vowels and consonants in particular ways. We can hear those habits as accents when the speakers communicate in a second language.

As we age, our capacity to execute some inner choreographies diminishes. And singers, fearful for their livelihoods, often try to minimize that change. In On the Art of Singing , singing teacher Richard Miller explains that by exercising the voice on a daily basis and by pre-emptively avoiding activities that might cause “wear and tear,” singers can expect to maintain their voices well into old age.

And yet no matter what singers do to prepare and preserve their voices, they still face ageism and cultural expectations about what it means to be “old.”  “One gets the impression that there is something unseemly about continuing to sing beyond a certain age, a kind of lawless flaunting of the geriatric rules,” says Miller. “This is why a number of people stop singing before they should. Society expects it of them.”

When critics praise Franklin “in spite of” her age, it shows that we take for granted that older performers should stop singing. But when Franklin takes the stage, she flagrantly rejects the idea that she is going to do what society expects. And she even makes an asset out of what some might see as a liability.

In genres that privilege honesty and a sense of authenticity – think punk, jazz, cabaret – a voice that sounds old, and maybe even damaged, can be a source of cultural capital for a singer, says musicologist Laurie Stras. This seems especially true for women in folk music where breathiness and tremulousness define the music. Joni Mitchell, Elaine Stritch, and Marianne Faithfull are among those who built substantial followings with voices that grew more gravelly as the years progressed.

Faithfull began singing as a teenager in the 1960s. Her flexible, high, and clear voice was the perfect folk-pop sound. Then in the 1970s, Faithfull struggled with addiction, depression, and homelessness. By the time she began recording again at the end of the decade, her voice had completely changed. The girlish soprano became gravelly, low, and harsh – qualities that have intensified as she has grown older.

And now she uses the inner choreographies that further play up those qualities. You can hear every crack in her tone, every instance of breathiness and tremulousness. An Independent  review of her 2011 album, Horses and High Heels, described the resulting sound as marked by “arthritic grace.”

In Faithfull’s case, the sound of age is the sound of experience. It let her transition from being a girl pop star who had limited agency and control over her musical career to being one of the grand dames of rock and roll. As Norma Coates argues, Faithfull has parlayed a mature sound into a source of authority and power.

And I think that’s how we should hear Aretha Franklin’s voice, too: she sings with an authority that communicates that vocal age doesn’t have to mean loss. Instead, an older voice can be a powerful voice.

Further Reading   

About The Author

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Lecturer, UCLA; Academic Correspondent, Hippo Reads

Alexandra Apolloni is Hippo Reads' Academic Correspondent for Music. She holds a Ph.D. in Musicology from UCLA and is a lecturer in the UCLA Music Industry Program. She studies voice and identity and has written about singers including Dusty Springfield, Martha Reeves, Lady Gaga, Miley Cyrus, Beth Ditto, and others for The Toast, the Oxford University Press music blog, and a variety of other publications. She is currently working on a book about girl singers in 1960s London.