What makes a chorister's voice distinctive?

Scientists explore the science of singing

The magical sound of choristers singing has filled the UK’s chapels and cathedrals for centuries. But what gives their voices that spine-tingling quality?

In an attempt to quantify what makes their voices 'shimmer', Professor David Howard of the University of York has carried out a study on children's voices.

By placing young volunteer singers in an anechoic chamber – a room designed to prevent reflection of sound – and measuring the acoustic frequencies of their singing, he hoped to identify exactly what gives their voices an 'angelic' quality. Although it seems clear that how choristers are trained – and there are as many different approaches as there are choir trainers – will affect the sound, Howard found certain acoustic frequencies recurring.

'In our experiments it looks as if that particular 'ring' is happening above the normal speech area, in the region up around 8,000Hz, where there is something appearing when you get this really shimmery sound,' says Howard to BBC News.

 The use of such research could lead to developments in choir training methods to hone the voice to produce these frequencies. Professor Howard even suggests that it could allow a computer to synthesise a beautiful choral sound. 

'Maybe you can get to the point where maybe the computer could be at the back of the choir,' he says. 'It's a speculative thought, and I think we might get the acoustic right. But what we don't know is the emotional driver - and I think that I think is a long long way off.'

Benjamin Goodson