The sound of a boys’ choir is enhanced when girls are present in the audience.
According to research, the powerful singing of an all-male choir has an evolutionary impact similar to that seen in the mating habits of frogs and crickets.
Recordings of a prestigious boys’ choir, formerly led by Johann Sebastian Bach in Leipzig, Germany, show that the older boys in the group would enhance their singing with a pleasant tone when girls were present in the audience.
The impact, noticeable only in the senior bass vocalists between the ages of 16 and 19, is believed to be similar to the behavior seen in frogs and crickets. These animals modify their individual calls in order to distinguish themselves during choruses that attract potential mates.
According to Professor Peter Keller, who conducted the study at Aarhus University’s center for music in the brain, boys’ singing becomes more captivating and resonant when girls are in the audience, though the effect is subtle.
Keller and his team collaborated with the esteemed St Thomas choir in Leipzig upon hearing from a student and ex-member that the boys’ singing appeared to slightly alter when there were female audience members.
An examination of the boys’ performance of a chorale and a fugue written by Bach revealed that when singing in the presence of 15 to 16-year-old girls, boys with deeper voices enhanced their vocal clarity and projection by focusing more energy on the frequency range of 3,000Hz, also known as the singer’s formant.
It was uncertain if individuals could perceive the subtle change in vocals, rather than using sensitive acoustic equipment. Additionally, it was uncertain if the resulting sound was more or less desirable due to the improved singer’s formant.
In order to determine the impact, the scientists conducted two virtual experiments with 2,247 male and female participants who listened to recordings of the boys singing with and without a female audience. While both male and female volunteers noted a distinction between the two performances, only the female participants expressed a preference for the singing with the enhanced singer’s vocal formant. Lead researcher Keller explains that this preference is likely subconscious and not easily noticeable. The findings have been published in the Biology Letters journal.
According to Keller, not every individual who hears this will recognize or favor it. Rather, it is a statistical occurrence that occurs on a larger scale, at the level of the population.
During the recordings, the male performers had two separate experiences: one in front of an all-male audience and another with teenage girls sitting in the front row under the guise of being on a school trip. In interviews after the concert, the boys claimed that they sang better when the girls were present, but none confessed to deliberately seeking their attention.
It is uncertain if any particular bass singers were highlighted during the performance. One theory is that the strong presence of singers with deep voices brought focus to the bass section as a whole. In addition to the four basses, the choir consisted of four tenors between the ages of 16 and 18, four altos between 12 and 16, and four sopranos between 12 and 13 years old.
The results of the study indicate that singing in a choir involves a unique type of social interaction where both cooperation and competition, which may have a sexual component, can coexist. Lead researcher Keller explained, “While the group is working together, each individual also has a separate form of communication, signaling their competitive nature and desire to be chosen.”