Boy soprano

A boy soprano is a young male singer with an unchanged voice in the soprano range.

Although a treble, or choirboy, may also be considered to be a boy soprano, the colloquial term "boy soprano" is generally only used for boys who sing, perform, or record as soloists, and who may not necessarily be choristers who sing in a boys' choir. Usage of the term "boy soprano" is more prevalent in North America, and "treble" is used in the UK.


In the liturgical Anglican and English Catholic traditions, young choristers are normally referred to as "trebles", rather than boy sopranos.[1] The term "treble" derives from the Latin triplum, used in 13th and 14th century motets to indicate the third and highest range which was sung above the tenor part (which carried the tune) and the alto part. Another term for that range is superius. The term "treble" itself was first used in the 15th century.[2][3] Trebles have an average range of A3 to A5.

The use of trebles (and falsettos) in Christian liturgical music can be traced back to pre-Christian times. Saint Paul's dictum that "women should be silent in churches" resonated with this tradition; the development of vocal polyphony from the Middle Ages through the Renaissance and Baroque thus took place largely, though not exclusively, in the context of the all-male choir, in which all voice parts were sung by men and boys.

The term "boy soprano" originated with Dr Henry Stephen Cutler (1825–1902), Choirmaster of the Cecilian Choir, New York, who used the term for both the choir members and soloists, who were church choristers, when giving concerts in public halls. The earliest use is traced to a Choral Festival at Irving Hall, New York, in May 1866.[4]

Short-lived range

The general vocal range of an adult female soprano is C4–C6 (highlighted), with notes unreachable by an average Treble marked in red (B5–C6).

Most trebles have a comfortable range from the A below "middle C" (A3) to the F one and a half octaves above "middle C" (F5).[5] This ability may be comparatively rare, but the Anglican church repertory, which many trained trebles to sing, frequently demands G5 and A5.[6] Some trebles, however, can extend their voices higher in the modal register to "high C" (C6). The high C is considered the defining note of the soprano voice type. For high notes see, for example, the treble solo at the beginning of Stanford's Magnificat in G, David Willcocks' descant to Mendelssohn's tune for the carol Hark, the Herald Angels Sing, the even higher treble solo from Gregorio Allegri's Miserere, and the treble part in the Nunc Dimittis from Tippett's Evening Canticles written for St John's College, Cambridge. Many trebles are also able to reach higher notes by use of the whistle register but this practice is rarely called for in performance.[7]

As a boy approaches and begins to undergo puberty, the quality of his voice increasingly distinguishes itself from that typical of girls.[8] Before and as the voice drops, a uniquely rich tone develops. This brief period of high vocal range and unique color forms much of the ground for the use of the boy soprano in both liturgical and secular music in the Western world and elsewhere. Occasionally boys whose voices have changed can continue to sing in the soprano range for a period of time. This stage ends as the boy's larynx continues to grow and, with the breaking of his voice, he becomes unable to sing the highest notes required by the pieces of music involved.[9]

The voice of the boy is subject to the effects of the dropping of the larynx, also known as the breaking of the voice.[10] The ultimate result of this profound change is that a new set of vocal ranges become available, for example bass, baritone, tenor, countertenor and sopranist.

It has been observed that boy sopranos in earlier times were, on average, somewhat older than in modern times.[11] For example, Franz Joseph Haydn was considered to be an excellent boy soprano well into his teens[12] and Ernest Lough was 15 when he first recorded his famous "Hear My Prayer" (on April 5, 1927), with his voice not getting deeper until 1929 (at age 17 or 18).[13] However, for a male to sing soprano with an unchanged voice in his mid-to-late teens is currently fairly uncommon.[14] In the developed world, puberty tends to begin at younger ages (most likely due to differences in diet, including greater availability of proteins and vitamins).[15] It is also becoming more widely known that the style of singing and voice training within cathedrals has changed significantly in the past century, making it more difficult for boys to continue singing soprano much beyond the age of 13 or 14.[16]

Early breaking of boys' voices due to puberty becoming earlier in recent times, is causing a serious problem for choirmasters.[17][18][19]

On the other hand, some musicologists dispute that earlier onset of puberty occurs. They contend that there is no reliable evidence of any significant change in the age of boys' maturity over the past 500 years or even beyond that.[20] Indeed, The Problemes of Aristotle (published in London, 1595, from Problemata) state that "boyes [are] apt to change their voice about fourteene yeeres of age," and Ashley's research seems generally to concur with this.[21]


  1. Taylor, Eric (1991). The AB guide to music theory (Reprinted 2011 ed.). London: Associated Board of the Royal Schools of Music. p. 106. ISBN 978-1-85472-447-2.
  2. Westrup, Jack; Wilson, F. Ll. Harrison ; revised by Conrad (1985). Collins encyclopaedia of music (Completely revised [ed.] ed.). London: Chancellor. p. 556. ISBN 0-907486-50-9.
  3. Skeat, Walter W. (2005). An Etymological Dictionary of the English Language. Mineola, N.Y.: Dover Publications. p. 662. ISBN 0-486-44052-4.
  4. "The Boy Choir & Soloist Directory – Featured Boy Sopranos and Trebles". Retrieved 2008-03-07.
  5. Willis, Elizabeth C.; Kenny, Dianna T. (2008). "Effect of Voice Change on Singing Pitch Accuracy in Young Male Singers" (PDF). Journal of Interdisciplinary Music Sudies. 2 (1&2): 111–119. Retrieved 9 February 2015.
  6. "Developing Voice presentation" (PDF). Archived from the original (PDF) on 2008-09-08.
  7. McKinney, James (1994). The Diagnosis and Correction of Vocal Faults. Genovex Music Group. ISBN 978-1-56593-940-0.
  8. "Children's Singing Voices - Maintain that Youthfulness".
  9. "Trebles". Professor Martin Ashley.
  10. Doctor K. "Larynx Changes During Puberty Cause Boy's Voice to Crack". UEcpreess. 24 November 2015.
  11. Diep, Francie. "Boys Now hitting Puberty earlier, reshuffling Boys' Choirs".
  12. Weil, Elizabeth. "Where Have All the Sopranos Gone"? The New York Times. 8 November 2013.
  13. "Ernest Lough (b. November 17, 1911)". The Boy Choir & Soloist Directory.
  14. "Boy Sopranos and Early Onset of Puberty".
  15. Chalabi, Mona. "Why is Puberty starting earlier"? The Guardian. 4 November 2013.
  16. "Trebles". Professor Martin Ashley.
  17. Copping, Jasper; Mole, Graham (9 October 2010). "Choirs in deep trouble over voices breaking early". The Daily Telegraph.
  18. Walford, Charles (10 December 2012). "Earlier puberty threatens future of choirboys: Many forced to retire by the age of 12". Daily Mail.
  19. Prigg, Mark (11 January 2013). "Could the choirboy disappear? Scientists find boys voices are breaking earlier than ever due to 'rich diet'". Daily Mail.
  20. Beet, Stephen R. (2005). The Better Land – Great Boy Sopranos of the 20th Century. Rectory Press. ISBN 1903698146. OCLC 654588629.
  21. Ashley, Martin (2010). How High Should Boys Sing? Gender, Authenticity and Credibility in the Young Male Voice. Ashgate Publishing. ISBN 9781409493914.

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