Voices for science
On this page are audio recordings by boys who have “given their voices to science”. It is a data archive for the use of those wishing to study the adolescent male voice as it changes, and a resource for illustrating my books and papers.
1000 Voices across three phases (cross-sectional study)
The paediatrician J.M. Tanner proposed five stages of puberty that are still accepted as a normative standard today in clinical work. For his “eclectic” scheme John Cooksey inserted an extra stage, making six. Michael Fuchs preferred three phases in his work with the Thomanerchor of Leipzig. As a result of my own collaborative work with Professor Gary Butler, we have similarly adopted a three-phase system in Building Voices in preference to five or six stages. Here is a non-technical explanation. Below are several contrasting examples of each of the three phases taken from my cross-sectional study of 1000 boys’ speaking voices. (There are over 1000 of these samples, not a lot to be gained by posting them all, though of course they are all included in the quantitative analysis and statistics). See here for a table mapping phases and stages against definitive measurements of puberty, and here for a line graph showing the progress of one boy from the longitudinal study throught the phases.
Boys develop proficiency in singing throughout childhood. By the time the speaking voice pitch has fallen to anywhere between 220 and 260 Hz the boy is technically still a child, but voices that have been taught to access a singing rather than speaking register have been described by John Cooksey as optimal, and the "climax of beauty and fullness". Childish sweetness or "innocence" is still present, leading some listeners prefer the weightier and "fruitier" sound of the phase one voice (see below).
Pitch range of childhood phase 200-260Hz
Tanner stage 1.
The voice will be a little deeper than that of a young child, but this deepening is not at first attributable to puberty. Most boys will still be soprano/alto, but preparations for change need to be in hand. The term "peripubertal" can be used to describe this time when boys are likely to approach and just cross the threshold of medical puberty.
Pitch ranges of phase approx 195 - 215Hz
Tanner stage 1 , beginning stage 2
Initially, the voice sounds slightly deepened to most ears, but still retains a boy-like timbre. This is gradually lost as puberty is now having an impact. Ideally boys should have a cambiata part, but if not possible, low alto is likely to be nearer than tenor. Onset of instability marks the end of the phase, when the voice starts to deepen much more rapidly.
Pitch ranges of phase approx 170 - 199 Hz
Tanner stages 2 and 3
The voice contunues and accelerates its rapid descent and many boys at first have difficulty adjusting their singing. "Boy-like" timbre is lost from the whole range which now sounds "young-man" like, causing some listeners to say it has "broken". The term "emerging baritone" conveniently covers what most boys will be able to do.
Pitch range of phase approx 99 - 169 Hz
Tanner stages 3 and 4
Voices at Thirteen (cross-sectional and longitudinal studies)
Claims that boys’ voices have unique qualities that cannot be replicated by similarly aged girls are regularly made, though equally regularly contested. 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. There is no unique or special choral sound that is the automatic consequence of simply using boys aged about thirteen. A wide range in the timing of puberty across any population is one reason for this. Another, of course, is that there are differing approaches to choral training and different acoustical environments in which the boys sing. This is explained here and illustrated through the archive below. The samples match the text and need to be read in conjunction with it.
Soprano, Treble or Cambiata? (longitudinal studies)
Longitudinal studies of boys’ voices are relatively rare. Much of what it is written about adolescent vocal growth is derived from cross-sectional studies because, as Hollien et al remarked in their exceptional longitudinal study “longitudinal research of the type to be reported is immensely labor intensive”. In consequence “the data provided are averaged on a group basis rather than by individual”. It is rare, therefore, that the life course of an individual boy will fit norms derived from data that are mainly cross-sectional. Many studies reporting general growth have been “ been based on protocols where the target factor was measured only once or twice a year”, - not really adequate for understanding voice. Cooksey’s most famous study was longitudinal over a three-year period with monthly sampling. However, it suffered from the drawback of taking an inadequate cross-section of all the different approaches, techniques and styles in use around the world. My own studies have attempted to build on Cooksey’s by addressing this potential shortcoming. The albums below are not presented for the primary purpose of listening or music appreciation, but for what can be learned from boys taught in different ways and followed through their early adolescence. Some tracks are made available on that understanding - that they are indeed "voices for science" and a learning resource. This account should be studied carefully before listening to the tracks.
Louis Alexandre Desire, from Paris, is the boy with the lute on the front cover of my post-doctoral monograph. Louis had quite a career as an exponent of bel canto boy soprano technique. As a soprano, he recorded quite an extensive discography extending from childhood to mid-adolescence. In 2007 he gave a song recital as part of my inaugural professorial lecture – possibly a unique occasion! Four pieces from that recital were issued on the disc Il Passagio. Recorded at the same time was a demo disc called Swing and Sadness – an attempt to add a bit of “swing” to classical repertoire, but sad because the boy soprano voice flowers only briefly. During his visit from France, I “fixed it” for Louis to be the soloist in Hear My Prayer sung at evensong in Bristol Cathedral. It was his ambition at the time to sing the solo made famous by Ernest Lough with an English cathedral choir! The tracks below chart the developmental course of this boy soprano voice.
Monday Afternoons stands in direct contrast to Il Passagio. It attempts to chart the course of a typical English “treble” of the early twenty-first century, if there is such a thing. Max Matthew was recruited at aged 10 – his singing future at the time largely an unknown. Uniquely, samples of a wide range of parameters were taken at monthly intervals. Demo recordings were also made regularly to capture any subtle nuances or differences resulting from growth. We decided to issue these recordings as a professionally produced CD, which is still available. The story took an interesting twist as Max’s career became split between the National Boys Choir of Scotland and the RSCM Northern Cathedral Singers. The approaches to dealing with young adolescent voice could hardly have been more different, if illustration of the fact that there is no such thing as a “typical treble” were needed. The tracks below continue beyond Monday Afternoons into Monday Twilight, right up to age 16.
According to Irvine Cooper, the youthful Wayne Newton was a perfect example of a cambiata voice. Here in the UK, I still cite Dominic (Inigo) Byrne. Dominic was originally a chorister at Chester Cathedral, but his ambitions for a singing career led to a disagreement between the choir director and the London vocal coach. When faced with the choice between a professionally coached commercial recording and the regime of the cathedral choir, he opted for the former. Paradoxically, Dominic never knew he was a cambiata, though the fact that he was coached to be a perfect example by a teacher who did not use the term speaks volumes. Dominic’s identity change was studied in minute detail, though unfortunately no physical growth measurements were taken. Accordingly, I have included other boys from the longitudinal study whose voices came to be of similarly high cambiata quality. Dominic features in the BKS film Riding the Changes.