A York University researcher is wading in to one of the most contentious issues facing the church - are girls' voices suited to singing the Divine Office?
Purists argue that while girls' voices may be angelic, they are not appropriate for traditional church music, which was written for the male voice. But does the debate have a real musical foundation or is it merely sexist?
David Howard, a deputy lay clerk at Ripon cathedral and a conductor, is leading research at York University's department of electronics. "We are not asking whether the sound produced by girls is better or worse, but we are trying to find whether people can tell the difference," he said.
An experiment using 200 listeners showed that most could distinguish between the singing voices of boys and girls. Researchers investigated whether they could detect the gender of choristers singing the top line of snippets of traditional cathedral music.
The listeners were correct more than 50 per cent of the time. However, Professor Howard said this did not add weight to the purists' argument. "Church music was composed for the male voice but if we cannot progress from 400 years ago where does that argument lead us?" he asked. "Not only are modern instruments very different, but the human voice has evolved. Who can tell whether boys today fulfil a composer's wishes any better than girls?" The mould was broken in 1991 at Salisbury. Many other cathedrals, including York Minster, now allow girls to sing.
The Campaign for the Defence of the Traditional Cathedral Choir said that by creating girls' choirs, cathedrals were endangering the choral tradition. But Professor Howard said the fact that girls' and boys' voices are intrinsically different in no way establishes the supremacy of either. "I'm afraid most of this is pure sexism."