Child Choirs: Gender Issues

Figure 1.-- In the late 1980s and early-90s a lot of girl cathedral choirs were (finally) established. For some choirs the uniform of the boy cathedral choirs were copied. But some girl cathedral choirs got their own design. Image courtesy of Birte Koch

Church goers throughout Europe for centuries have gathered beneath the soaring arches of the great cathedrals to celebrate the mass and later the services of Protestant denominations. The services would be enriched by the sweet soprano voices of generations of boy choristers. This tradition has begun to change. At several of England's great cathedrals, girl choirs have been formed. Girl and mixed choirs are not a new phenomenon. They exist in many countries and individual churches often organize such choirs. But the new girl choirs in England are being organized for serious music. There is no though to creating a serious mixed choir as the great choral master works have been in fact written for boys' voices. But even the creation of girl choirs is proving extremely controversial.

Break with Tradition

The creation of girl choirs is a sharp and among many controversial break with liturgical tradition. Biblical instructions instructed women to remain silent in church. Thus for centuries it was the male voice that accompanied religious services. After centuries of boy and men's choirs, some of the voices in choir stalls are that of girls. Several English cathedrals now have girl choruses to share choral duties with the more familiar boy choirs.

Girl Choirs Organized

Some estimates suggest that as many as a third of the 64 Anglican cathedrals in England have organized girl choirs in the 1990s. Membership is commonly open to girls from about 8-15 years of age. As in most major in important cultural institutions with long established traditions, such change has incensed opponents. There are, however, forceful proponents. The creation of girl choirs spring from both political and philosophical trends. The movement toward equal opportunity is certainly one factor. It is the same impetus that has caused the Church of England and other denominations to ordain female vicars. Many believe with good reason that girls should have the same opportunity as boys to know the satisfaction of making beautiful music.

British Debate

A BBC programme in 1992 addressed the issue of boys' voices. There was a hot debate going on as to whether girls should be admitted to the Choir Schools of British Cathedrals. The purists argued that this would be a retrograde step. First it was stated that if girls were admitted, church singing would be seen as a 'girlie' thing, and recruitment of boys would be discouraged. An English reader writes, "There is quite a bit of resistance amongst boy to join choirs as it is. Many parish churches have few if any boys in their choirs these days. One of my grandsons was a Cathedral chorister. His elder brother, although a gifted musician, refused point blank to audition, because 'he wasn't going to wear a frock! The other debate is whether girls' voices are as good as boys' voices. At least two English Cathedrals do admit girls to their choir schools, but they don't sing with the boys. They have the girls singing the treble line at some services and the boys at others."

Difficulties Faced by Boy Choirs

The girls in many ways are performing an important service for the cathedrals. Many choirs have trouble recruiting boys. Away from the great cathedrals with well endowed choir schools, the smaller cathedrals are having trouble attracting boys. One problem is that boys are maturing sooner and faster than in the past. Old choristers recall that boys 50 years could remain in the choir until 16 or 17 years--when their voices broke. Now boys' voices commonly break at 12 or 13. This means that the choir can loose its leaders after only 4 or 5 years of singing.

Waning Interest among Boys

A generation ago, English boys with musical talent dreamt of joining a cathedral choir. In addition to the joys of music, choristers could look forward to national and world tours, some compensation, and full scholarships to prestigious public (exclusive private) schools. England had changed. Boys who once as Cubs learned to make a cupa (cup of tea) now drink Coke and wear jeans and baseball caps. Rather than join a choir, they now look forward to forming a rock band and playing computer games at home. The idea of attending a boarding choir school is much less appealing. Even the prestigious choir schools are having trouble recruiting talented 7-year olds to undertake the long process of training necessary for those majestic performances. Play stations appear to have won out over Palestrina. The English Choir School Association reports indicates that applications to choir schools had dropped 30 percent during the 1990s.

Enthusiatic Girls

Girls in contrast are full of enthusiasm. They have never taken to the computer like the boys. Computer games are a major factor here. The modern boy's room is a technological wonder. Boys today have more computer power than the early Austrnauts. Many boys simply do not want to give up their well appointed rooms for Spartan dormitories and long hours of hard work. Many girls in the new choirs are the younger sisters of former boy choristers and report being jealous of their brothers. Choir masters report that girls are today far more willing than boys to make the necessary sacrifices to take part in a prestigious choir.


Not only are the girls more willing to work hard, choirs can usually rely on them retaining their soprano voices until they are 15 or older. Given the substantial investmen made in training the children, the longevity of girl choristers presents a financial advantage that is difficult to ignore.


The upper register of the human voice is known as soprano in girls and treble in boys, but the register is the same. Some would say that the girl choirs can use the same repertoire as boys have used for centuries. Purists would, however, take issue with this--contending that there are differences between boy and girl voices. There is considerable difference of opinion on this. Many choir experts say that the difference is clear. Others say that there is no difference.

No difference

At an Association of Church Organists' meeting in Edinburgh in 1999 a boy and girl choir sang behind a curtain. The organists there could not tell the difference.


Many choir experts are not convinced. Christopher Barton tells us that there most asuredky are differences. In comparing two choirs he writes that there are is "quite different tonal colour". "The boys, he explains, "have a more characterful sound (which one may, of course, love or hate) and a more intensely expressive style with particularly good diction and response to the words, while the girls demonstrate a smoother tone and a lovely blend of voices." An English reader writes, "My contention was that there is a characteristic of a boy's voice that a girl cannot mimic. The boy reaches his apogee at around 12, 13, or rarely these days, 14 years of age. Girls mature at an earlier age. Hormonal changes cause periodic swelling of the vocal chords due to water retention, and the bell like quality is not there. Many of us believe that prepubertal boys and girls voices can be trained to sound identical from the ages of about six to ten. The feminist are right about this. However thereafter they are not the same. There is a quality of tone unique to older boys. It is because they have a larger lung capacity and greater power in diaphragm and chest. There is no doubt that there are girls with very good voices, but one will always find boys whose voices are better. There is no girls' choir to match the Vienna Boys' Choir or the Choristers of King's College Cambridge, etc."


Church of England officials are also not convinced that girls should replace boys. A conservative faction of church musicians are opposed to such as change. Choir purists have organized a group called the Campaign for the Defense of the Traditional Cathedral Choir. They are attempting to slow the growth of girl choirs. Most have no desire to block opportunities for girls. They are concerned though, that girls will rapidly replace the role of boys in church services. As is often the case, if boys begin to see singing in the choir as a girls' activity--it will become even more difficult to recruit them. John Saunders, former choir master at Gloucester Cathedral points out, "Should they begin to opt out and we lose the tradition of the boy chorister, from where will the expert altos, tenors, and basses receive their initial training." The Campaign defending boy choirs warns that what has taken centuries to develop could be lost in a single generation.


A HBC reader writes, "After visiting some choir pages, I decided to draw a picture of choristers (figure 1). In the late 1980s and early-90s a lot of girl cathedral choirs were (finally) established. For some choirs the uniform of the boy cathedral choirs were copied. But some girl cathedral choirs got their own design. In my drawing you can see such an example. The boy refers not to any special choir. A lot of boy choirs wear garments like this one. The girl wears a uniform of the Salisbury Cathedral Girls Choir, England. The picture material I found was only quite small but I think the details are right."

Individual Girls' Choirs

We have very little information about individual girls' choirs, but have begun to collect some infomation. One such choir is the Lincoln Cathedrl Choir in England. Of course a girl cathedral choir is a very modern development.

Current Situation

An English reder reports in 2008. "There are now 44 choirs admitting girls affiliated to the Choir Schools Association. [Times] The emotive issue is still the same. When the girls come, the boys go."


Times Online (March 14 2008).


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Created: Novermber 1, 2000
Spell checked: December 12, 2001
Last updated: 11:37 PM 1/18/2009