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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 more 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.


In the liturgical Anglican and English Catholic traditions, young choristers are normally referred to as trebles, rather than boy sopranos. The term "treble" derives from the Latin triplum, used in 13th century motets to indicate the third and highest range. Trebles have an average range of C4-A5.

The use of trebles (and falsettos) in Christian liturgical music can be traced back to pre-Christian times. Boys were called upon to sing chants at Jewish religious services. Saint Paul's dictum that "women should be silent in churches" (mulieres in ecclesiis taceant) resonated with this largely patriarchal 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.

The recent emergence of liturgical choirs including girls has led in these traditions to both a more inclusive definition of treble that includes the higher voices of children of either gender and to the qualified expression "girl treble," though such usage has met with opposition.

Short-lived range

Most trebles have an approximate range from the A below "middle C" (A3) to the F one and a half octaves above "middle C" (F5). This ability may be comparatively rare, but the Anglican church repertory, which many trained trebles sing, frequently demands G5 and even "high A" (A5). 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 higher 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, and the even higher treble solo 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.

As a boy approaches and begins to undergo puberty, the quality of his voice increasingly distinguishes itself from that typical of girls. 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.

While the girl's voice tends to develop gradually into the richness of the adult female voice, the voice of the boy is subject to the effects of the dropping of the larynx, also known as the breaking of the voice. The ultimate result of this profound change is that a new set of vocal ranges become available (see bass, baritone, tenor, contralto, sopranista; see also castrato).

It has been observed that boy sopranos in earlier times were, on average, somewhat older than in modern times. For example, Johann Sebastian Bach was considered to be an outstanding boy soprano until halfway through his sixteenth year, and Ernest Lough was 16 when he recorded his famous "Hear My Prayer", but for a male to sing soprano with an unchanged voice at that age is currently fairly uncommon. 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). 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.

The fact that boys are no longer trained to sing in the head voice is a significant factor in the demise of the older boy soprano. In times past it was common for boys to sing soprano well beyond the changes at puberty and it was common (and entirely correct) to refer to a choirboy's voice as 'breaking' as the singing voice had been preserved by methods now generally lost.

Famous boy sopranos

Popular treble solos

See also


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