Further ESSAYS

On this page you will find my latest output.  There are three additional chapters to How High Should Boys Sing? in the form of"essays".  They are "open source", i.e. free to read. Any later versions that might appear in peer reviewed journals may be somewhat shorter and different in a number of respects.  However, you may cite these essays without first requesting permission if you wish.  The correct form of citation is Ashley, M. (2019) Title of Article, on line essay at www.martin-ashley.com/essays    [accessed on (date of your access)]

Voices at Thirteen: when is the 'golden year' for an English boy chorister?i



Claims that boys’ voices have unique qualities that cannot be replicated by similarly aged girls are regularly made.  Particularly sonorous or plangent qualities are said to be possessed by the older boys in a cathedral style choir, typically thirteen-year-olds.  However, it is well known that boys’ voices change and develop at significantly different rates.  A wide range in the timing of puberty across any population is one reason for this.


This paper considers three different models of when a boy’s “treble” voice might be at its best and compares these with cross-sectional data from a recent study of the ages at which boys reached the respective critical periods in the three models.  Longitudinal data are also available on the physical and vocal development of thirty choristers.  Particular moments in the acoustic life histories of these boys, such as an important concert solo or CD recording, were identified as their “peak performance”.  Their physical development was monitored and the stage of puberty they had reached at the time of their peak performance is known.  Timing of these events was analysed in relation to the three models. 


The results show a bias towards peak performance occurring after puberty has begun in spite of the wide variations in the timing of puberty.  This does not support the influential predictions of John Cooksey who considered that peak performance in a “treble” voice should occur before the onset of puberty.  Five of the boys, for whom particularly good recordings exist across the entire treble career, are selected to illustrate the vocal timbre at the age of thirteen and how this compares with recordings made at younger ages.  The relationship between these findings and the three different models of peak performance are discussed with conclusion drawn about and the possible implications for vocal and choral pedagogy.

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Wee shall hear the fearest voyces of all cathedral churches in England:  Uncovering a lost treasure of English choral singing



It is customary in England today to refer to boys singing the soprano part in choral music as “trebles”.  Moreover, the English tradition is for boys’ unchanged voices always to sing the top line, very rarely an alto line as is done in the German tradition.  That this state of affairs has existed since the sixth century, as can sometimes carelessly be implied, is far from the case.  In earlier times, English boys regularly sang two parts, a higher treble and lower mean.  After the English Reformation, the two parts merged into a new mean that was an amalgam of the two.  Not only has this voice been lost, its nature has been misunderstood. Erroneous upward transposition of renaissance music has played a significant part in this history.  Some authorities propose that the mean voice must have been an unrefined, harsh “chest voice” but such description does not square readily with frequent sixteenth century references to “sweete” singing.  This paper reviews how the mean voice might have been produced and considers the prospects for its rehabilitation as the “fearest voyce” that a boy can produce. Paradoxically, it argues that the much more recent American boychoir tradition may be closer to the sixteenth century sound than the current English tradition.

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A high-stretched minikin or a good strong mean?  Young masculinity, identity and voice in the late sixteenth century


A “good strong mean” was a boy chorister of St Paul’s Cathedral, probably about twelve years of age.  He would have lived during the latter part of the sixteenth century when the normal singing part for a boy was mean (not “treble” as it is today).  He would have been invited to perform on stage during a play by John Marsden, as did the choristers in those days. But what was a high-stretched minikin?  Some scholars of early theatre have assumed that this was a small boy with a high, squeaky “soprano” voice.  This essay argues an alternative proposition.  The minikin was not a small boy, but a scrawny teenager with cracking voice.  The argument is based upon two foundations.  First, what is known about vocal identity and masculinity during the sixteenth century and the probable ages of the boy actors of St Paul’s.  Second what is known today about puberty and voice change.  There is no shortage of lessons for boys, young men and their teachers who struggle today with “sounding like a girl”.

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