Angelic sounds of boy choristers singing carols at Christmas could be a thing of the past as they battle testosterone levels at an earlier age, according to new research.
Two scientific studies carried out Professor Martin Ashley, Head of Research at Edge Hill University’s Faculty of Education, confirm choir directors’ fears that boys voices are ‘breaking’ much earlier than expected.
He has just published an extensive historical study of the timing of puberty and voice change in boys over the last two thousand years in collaboration with Dr Ann-Christine Mecke of the Hochschule für Musik und Theater Felix Mendelssohn Bartholdy, Germany.
“We are seeing in today’s 12 year olds what was seen in the 1960s in 14 year olds,” said Professor Ashley.
“Unfortunately, the consequence is that older and musically experienced boys are being lost early, with a potential impact on the choir’s ability to perform the more difficult music. So the image of young boys singing wonderful Christmas carols could soon be a thing of the past.”
Professor Ashley is also nearing completion of a large digital audio database of present day voices, which contains analytical recordings of over 1,000 boys, including boys from seven of the cathedral choirs that produce festive music. The voices are compared with other measurements such as the boys’ heights, weights, neck sizes and lung volumes.
He explained: “We know far more about girls than boys because there isn’t the interest in reproductive health and because puberty in boys is difficult to measure.
“However, modern computerised analysis allows conclusions to be made from voice alone and our voice data is telling us that many boys’ careers as angelic singers are now coming to an end at only twelve years of age because puberty in boys does seem to be earlier now than it has been over the last two thousand years.”
When completed, the database will be a resource for future researchers who will have access to recordings of early twenty-first century voices.
Professor Martin Ashley joined Edge Hill University as a Reader in September 2007 and was appointed Professor in Education and Head of Research in May 2008 after establishing the Centre for Learner Identity Studies and the Sounding Edge music education project.
His research interests focus on boys’ singing and the transition from primary to secondary school; the connection between boys singing and educational achievement; and the impact of male role models on boys’ concept of identity and masculinity. Professor Ashley’s work on why boys don’t sing informed the Sing Up Britain campaign – a £40m Government drive to increase singing in all British schools.