Tall sopranos, short basses and being polite about altos
I’m running fast to upload the masses of data on height and voice part that are coming in. Several research colleagues have expressed envy out how much we now have! Certainly enough for some very robust statistics. THANK YOU SO MUCH! So there’s obviously a lot of interest in this research. Here’s a little more information for the singers who have responded (or might be about to.) First, we are NOT trying to prove a theory that basses and contraltos are taller than sopranos and tenors. If anything, it’s the opposite – that there is no significant difference. This arose because another researcher has proposed that the alto part in renaissance times was sung not by counter-tenors but by high modal tenors. As part of his reasoning, he suggested that since sixteenth century people were on average shorter than people today, their larynxes would have been correspondingly smaller and their voices therefore higher. Consequently a tenor could have sung what it now takes a counter-tenor to do. (There’s also the question of the pitch the music was actually sung at, but we won’t go there now!) Now I’ve been researching what happens to boys’ voices as they grow through adolescence for a long time and the tall basses/short tenors theory struck me as a somewhat implausible for all sorts of reasons. But I could find nothing useful about height and voice pitch. Hence the need to create it ourselves. A couple of interesting thoughts can be shared already. The most interesting concerns ageing. My work is with adolescent boys, but there’s no doubt that the need for good research on the ageing voice is also great. We didn’t ask for age, but quite a few of you have volunteered that information and it’s clear that there is a good proportion of retired people in the sample. It’s looking as though the older singers are on average shorter than the younger singers – of either sex. This is no surprise. The tendency for the younger generation to be taller is well documented. Now does ageing itself rather than height affect voice pitch? Quite possibly yes. And here’s an interesting thing. Yes, we are taller than the Tudors, but how many Tudors lived until their seventies and eighties and continued actively as singers? Oops! The other thought is this. The idea that height affects voice pitch is predicated on the idea that there is a strong correlation between body height and vocal fold length. Well, this is certainly true for rapidly growing boys, but we’re on less safe ground with adults. However, voice pitch depends on factors other than fold length. In boys, we know that a rapid gain in weight is usually associated with a rapid fall in voice pitch at certain times. This may be due to the vocal folds becoming thicker or more massive, amongst other things. I was too polite to ask for weights! And so, what you’ve all been waiting for. Well, I’m not going to tell you until we’ve done some really careful statistical analysis, but I can give a hint. You would not be wrong to say that that there are some tall tenors and some short basses in our choirs – and some first sopranos who might tower over some of the basses!
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