Unbeknownst to many, not only do our girl choristers enrich the life of the cathedral and wider community on a daily basis with their wonderful singing, but for almost 20 years they have also been major contributors to a unique study into the development of the female singing voice.
Girls first began singing in Wells Cathedral in 1994. Since 1999, the Wells Female Chorister Research Team - consisting of Professor Graham F. Welch (UCL), Professor David M. Howard (Royal Holloway) and Dr Evangelos Himonides (UCL) - have undertaken six-monthly studies at Wells with the girl choristers, involving over 700 recordings of more than 100 choristers! The data collected has provided new insights into the impact of education and training on young female voices, and of how such voices develop over time, as well as key factors that shape such development.
As one of our trustees, Lois Rogers explains:
'Wells Cathedral choir started taking girl treble singers alongside boys in 1994, at a time when such an initiative was considered fairly outlandish!
'Despite considerable progress in gender equality in most other areas, there was still a widely held misapprehension that young girl singers could not achieve the vocal skill and purity of boy trebles.
'It was quickly established that girls singing alongside boys and men in a choir conducted by a man, developed vocally in a way which led to their singing voices becoming indistinguishable from those of treble-singing boys. This discovery led to Wells Cathedral choir becoming the focus of a long-term academic research project on girls’ vocal development and the modification to this development which occurs as a consequence of choral training.
'The project is led by Professor Graham Welch, a music expert from the Institute of Education in London, and Professor David Howard, a specialist in voice analysis who is also head of the electronics department at York University. Their study has now built up a library of some 740 digital recordings of 105 individual girls’ voices collected at six-month intervals since 1999.
'In addition to microphone recordings, the researchers have also used an electrolarynograph, a device which uses electrodes attached to the neck, to measure the degree of contact between the vocal folds. This allows them to observe the impact of training and education on patterns of vibration of the vocal folds and the effect of this training on acoustic output from the mouth. The measurements have all been made during the production of speech, the singing of a two octave scale, and a carol.
'The research has produced a substantial number of publications including a contribution to The Oxford Handbook of Choral Pedagogy on girls’ vocal training, which is co-authored by Matthew Owens. The other publications cover new territory in the understanding of female vocal development, including the physiological changes that accompanies choral training; related psychoacoustic studies; analysis of the features of the musical culture that influence the chorister sound; and perceptions of chorister gender.'