Boys singing in a church choir begin to compete for attention when teenage girls are in the audience, new research shows.
The research was done in Leipzig, Germany, with 16 members of the St. Thomas Choir, all teenage boys. The researchers held two concerts and recorded each choir member’s voice individually for the purpose of the study, published in the journal Frontiers in Psychology.
“The choir was informed that there would be researchers around throughout the recording session, as well as a small audience to create a natural performance situation,” the study explains. “The choir was also told that a ‘school group’ was due to arrive for a castle tour and would join the audience for a performance and would be taking notes for a school magazine article. This school group consisted of four females who constituted our manipulation. The choir was instructed to sing as they normally would in a concert performance.”
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The researchers found that the tone quality of the choirboys who were singing deeper parts clearly change when the teenage girls were in the audience. “The boost in the singer’s formant that we observed may constitute an attempt by the basses to establish a privileged social communication channel with female listeners by drawing attention to these appealing vocal qualities,” says the study.
“The fact that female presence did not lead to a reliable enhancement of the singer’s formant in tenors (aged 16–18 years) suggests that the effect was not related to a general desire to lift performance standard in the presence of female peers. An increase in the desire to perform well could also be expected to affect other performance parameters, even in sopranos (12–16 years) and altos (12–16 years), but no such additional effects were observed.
“Furthermore, as revealed by post-concert questionnaire responses, members of the tenor and bass section were unanimous in thinking that the performance sung in the presence of females was the best, but none admitted to attempting to attract the girls’ attention. Therefore, while tenors and basses converged in terms of their subjective evaluations of the performances, their objectively measured behavior diverged.”
It adds, “Indeed, the fact that we observed any vocal embellishment at all is remarkable given that the music was composed for religious celebration in the Lutheran Protestant tradition, where flamboyance is eschewed (in contrast to opera, gospel, and pop choirs, for example).”
The research notes that the origin of music remains a mystery to scientists. Some believe competition for sexual partners could have driven the evolution of musical behavior, while others cite social cohesion.
The study urges caution in generalizing the outcome. “Of course, investigating a single elite group has the obvious limitation of a small sample size. For this reason, caution should be taken in drawing generalized conclusions, especially since the current study focused on a single, culture-specific musical style. Indeed, one may ask whether effects observed with a highly drilled European boys choir would generalize to everyday forms of group music making in different cultures. While we cannot answer this question based on present findings, work in the field of ethnomusicology suggests that such generalizability is feasible.”