Wondrous order in the choir photo
What wonderful order and symmetry there is in a line-up of organ pipes! From tallest to shortest, from highest note to lowest note, a joy for mathematician, physicist, artist and musician alike. OK, now for the choir photograph. Can you all line up in height order please? (How many of us remember such humiliation from schooldays?) A perfect, organ pipe-like symmetry of basses merging to tenors and sopranos merging to altos? Not in the choir photo that’s on my study wall. In your dreams, maybe!
Perhaps you have guessed that I am about to announce the result of the survey of adult heights and choir voice parts that David Howard and I have recently undertaken. The response has been tremendous and the results are still coming in. Thank you so much if you have contributed. I’ve now had the opportunity to get a colleague to upload the first set of results to a computer programme known as SPSS, (Statistical Package for the Social Sciences) an industry standard programme for statistical analysis used in most universities.
And what says SPSS? There is no significant difference between the heights of sopranos and altos, or between tenors and basses. There are tall tenors and short basses – it’s official and it happens mainly by chance! Or to put it another way, the null hypothesis of “the distribution of height is the same across categories of voice” must be retained.
Of course, things are never quite so straightforward. Yes, we found evidence of tall tenors, but the tall basses were actually taller than the tall tenors. The box plot and histograms are interesting. They show that tenors are a somewhat more homogenous group than basses. The distribution of heights across basses more closely matches the classic bell curve than does the distribution of heights across tenors, which is a finding that certainly demands further investigation. And for those of you who like to quote choir singing as a road to good health, all choir singers are, on average, slightly taller than all adults!
This all started with my doubting the theory put forward by Simon Ravens that voices were higher during the renaissance because singers were shorter. I think this survey shows that I was right to doubt this. Whilst there may yet be something in the idea, to do nothing more than present the heights of present day opera singers is just not sufficient evidence. This does not stop me supporting the idea now being put forward by both Ravens and Andrew Parrott that high modal tenors rather than falsettists were more likely to have sung the part immediately below the boys. There are other reasons to believe this but we must not allow our desire to support a theory to exceed the available evidence.
One very striking feature of the current survey has been just how much taller our young choir singers have become than their older colleagues. Now if Ravens’ theory were right as it stands, we should now be experiencing a critical shortage of tenors. far more young men should now be basses whilst tenors should be rather more common amongst older generations. This isn’t shown by the survey. Nevertheless, I’m aware that it can be hard to get good tenors – readers (particularly frustrated conductors) may have views on this. But what of altos and sopranos? According to the same logic, altos should now be outnumbering sopranos. As far as I’m aware, this isn’t the case. Indeed, the opposite may be true. It can often be hard to persuade young women to become altos.
Distribution of basses
Distribution of tenors
Readers’ thoughts welcome!
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