Monash University

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Voices of distinction: choirboys' narratives of music, masculinity and the middle-class

posted on 2016-11-29, 04:19 authored by Hall, Clare Angela
This study investigates how boys come to be choirboys. It is a sociological examination of the musical lives of a group of 10–13 year old choirboys who are members of a renowned boys’ choir in Australia and who are passionate about singing. The thesis is positioned within debates about young musical masculinities and addresses previously under-researched aspects of boys’ voices which speak to larger questions about the interrelationship between music, structure/agency and the individual/society.A considerable body of literature exists about why singing continues to be a fraught pursuit for the majority of boys in English-speaking cultures. This research supports the view that the ‘missing males’ in singing, particularly in school and in choirs, is a serious challenge for music educators and English-speaking cultures at large. However, previous theorisations of this phenomenon have generated a bifurcated view of male vocality which I redress. The boys’ choir in this study is a particularly potent site to intervene in these debates as the historical musical practices associated with educating choirboys provide a rich context for interrogating how the gendered meanings of this type of boy voice are constructed. Little is known about those boys who contradict gender norms by dedicating themselves to choral singing. What enables such boys to take up singing and to continue down this pathway? What does being a choirboy mean for them and what does it afford? What is special about the pedagogical practices that produce the choirboy? I respond to these questions by analysing the minutiae of choirboys’ musical lives and how gender and class influence why and how certain children take up certain musical ways of being. I use narrative enquiry methods to generate evocative stories of lived experience and I read the personal narratives of the choirboys, their mothers and teachers as relational to dominant cultural narratives of gender and class.To explain this I put Bourdieu’s signature concepts to work drawing together the seldom conversant fields of Bourdieusian sociology and the sociology of music education. Specifically I build on Bourdieu’s notion of habitus as it applies to music through the concept of musical habitus. I expand this concept to reveal the practices that have inculcated the particular dispositions that the choirboys share and to consider the self-reflexive capacities of the choirboys as musical agents. Emerging from my analysis is the inseparability of the classed delineations from the symbolic gendered meanings of the choirboys’ voice type. Throughout I develop the argument that the power of the choirboy is the distinction of his form of middle-class masculinity. This contributes new understandings about ‘making up’ the middle-class child through music education. Integral to this process is the significant role of mothers in enabling musical masculinities. I develop the concept of musical mothering to discuss the intensive pedagogical labour and emotional capital that the women invest in their son’s in and through music. The examination of pedagogy extends to the practices of the choirboys’ teachers which, I argue, reproduce the cultural distinction of the choirboy through what I term pedagogies for virtuosity. By providing a critical perspective on music, masculinity and the middle-class in relation to the musical lives of choirboys, this study offers a fresh way of understanding how certain subject positions are made possible and how social structures are reproduced or transformed through music.


Campus location


Principal supervisor

Jane Kenway

Additional supervisor 1

Rosalynd Smith

Additional supervisor 2

Jane Southcott

Additional supervisor 3

Anita Devos

Year of Award


Department, School or Centre

School of Music


Doctor of Philosophy

Degree Type



Faculty of Education