"Boyes are apt to change their voice at about fourteene yeeres of age": An historical background to the debate about longevity in boy treble singers

Martin Ashley, Ann-Christine Mecke

Abstract


Historical sources and longstanding custom suggest that boys' voices "break" during their 15th year. This event, when experienced boys leave the treble sections of choirs, represents a significant musical loss to the choir and potentially significant disruption to the boy’s musical career. In recent decades, increasing attention has been paid to research that highlights more subtle staged changes to the voice rather than a sudden "break." A pedagogical consequence has sometimes been for boys to leave treble sections at younger ages. Even more recently, concern with a trend toward earlier puberty, termed "secular" in the medical profession, has exerted further downward pressure, leading to expectations that age 12 rather than 14 might be the time choirs lose their most experienced trebles. Potential impacts include the need to simplify repertoire or commence the training of boys at younger ages. The paper reviews existing research in order to probe the unlikely scenario that the age of voice change has only recently dropped to as low as 12 after being consistently at 14 for over 2000 years. The conclusion is that a lack of conceptual clarity, wide variations in choral practice and inconsistent attempts at measurement in the past demand both skepticism and further research.


Keywords


Boys; voices; puberty; voice change; choirs; secular trend

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Reviews of Research in Human Learning and Music (ISSN 2162-2213) is a publication of the Center for Music Learning in the Sarah and Ernest Butler School of Music at The University of Texas at Austin.