During the holiday season, you often hear the kind of music that the New College Choir performs. New College, a boys school in Oxford, has one of Britain’s best known choirs. Most of the sopranos are 12 or 13 years old.
When exactly will their voices break? It’s an inexact science.
“A boy’s voice doesn’t just suddenly break,” says Martin Ashley who heads the Education Department at Britain’s Edge Hill University. “It goes through approximately five stages of change that correspond with other known changes of puberty.”
“All of those stages are just coming sooner,” Ashley adds. He and a colleague in Germany have just completed a study of boys’ voices that suggests something dramatic has been happening in recent decades.
Ashley and his team tested the voices of 1,000 boys and compared them to similar tests done in 1960.
“What we would have seen in 1960 in 14-year-olds we’re seeing now in 12-year-olds,” says Ashley. The boys’ voices are breaking two years earlier.
Ashley says if this trend continues, teenage boys’ choirs won’t have anyone to sing the soprano parts.
Some choir directors are already accounting for these changes. “We do recruit younger and we give ourselves a little more time than we used to,” says New College’s Director of Music Edward Higginbottom.
But Higginbottom disagrees that the voice change is quite so recent and sudden. He says the age at which boys’ voices have been breaking has been gradually coming down for hundreds of years.
“You can find evidence in the 17th century for boys voices continuing till [the age of] 20,” says Higginbottom.
There’s evidence spanning many centuries suggesting that boys’ voices didn’t break until they were quite old. Bach, for example, wrote music to be performed by boy sopranos and altos in their mid-to-late teens.
But researcher Martin Ashley brushes that aside.
“A lot of people mention Bach’s boy sopranos,” he says. “I’m almost certain that you would have found they were hitting puberty at around 14 or 15, but there were singing techniques that I’m sure that Bach would have used that allow their voices to continue up to 16 or 17.”
New College’s Edward Higginbottom, though, doesn’t think the puberty will begin much earlier than it does now. He’s not altogether serious when he muses the following: “If we have boy basses at the age of 10, clearly it’s a wonderful occasional for the girls to stride in and help us.”
Girls in a boys choir? What is the world coming to? Next, they’ll be playing soccer…