Is this the death of the choirboy Earlier puberty means many are forced to retire by the age of 12
The average age a boy's voice breaks has fallen from 14 in 1960 to 12 today
Many youngsters don't have the
opportunity to develop strong treble voices before going through
pubertyAnd older and more musically
experienced boys are being lost early, potentially impacting the choir’s ability to perform more difficult music
19:43 GMT, 10 December 2012
Earlier puberty means youngsters do not have the opportunity to develop strong treble voices before their voices drop into a lower range
For many, the sound of Christmas is the dulcet tones of choirboy voices singing Once in Royal David’s City or The Holly And The Ivy.
But it seems the ‘sweet singing in the choir’ may soon be silenced – by increased levels of testosterone in young boys.
Choirmasters have long suspected that their schoolboy chorister’s voices are breaking much earlier than previously. This has now been confirmed by extensive research
It means that youngsters do not have the opportunity to develop strong treble voices before they go through puberty and their voices drop into a lower range.
The theory that boys’ voices are breaking earlier was confirmed by two scientific studies carried out Professor Martin Ashley, Head of Research at Edge Hill University’s Faculty of Education, in Lancashire.
He has just published an extensive historical study of the timing of puberty and voice change in boys over the last 2,000 years, in collaboration with Dr Ann-Christine Mecke of the Hochschule fr Musik und Theater Felix Mendelssohn Bartholdy, Germany.
‘We are seeing in today’s 12 year olds what was seen in the 1960s in 14 year olds,’ said Professor Ashley.
‘Unfortunately, the consequence is that older and musically experienced boys are being lost early, with a potential impact on the choir’s ability to perform the more difficult music. So the image of young boys singing wonderful Christmas carols could soon be a thing of the past.’
A report published by the American Academy of Pediatrics in October found that boys are showing signs of puberty six months to two years earlier than previously assumed.
When Bach was composing music in the early 1700s, choirs would often keep their treble singers until they were 17
When Johann Sebastian Bach was writing in the early 1700s, boys choirs would often keep their treble singers through to the age of 16 or even 17, allowing him to compose more complex songs for evolved voices in the highest musical register.
Professor Ashley is also nearing completion of a large digital audio database of present day voices, which contains analytical recordings of over 1,000 boys, including boys from seven of the cathedral choirs that produce festive music.
The voices are compared with other measurements such as the boys’ heights, weights, neck sizes and lung volumes.
He explained: ‘We know far more about girls than boys because there isn’t the interest in reproductive health and because puberty in boys is difficult to measure.
‘However, modern computerised analysis allows conclusions to be made from voice alone and our voice data is telling us that many boys’ careers as angelic singers are now coming to an end at only 12 years of age because puberty in boys does seem to be earlier now than it has been over the last 2,000 years.’
When completed, the database will be a resource for future researchers who will have access to recordings of early 21st century voices.