Singing creates communities but also demarcates them

In the nineteenth century, interest in the origins of the voice grew. Instruments to research that, like the laryngoscope, a mirror to be inserted in the throat, were therefore developed. This new understanding also brought with it manuals for singers and orators: the voice was a physical attribute that could be nurtured.

In the 19th century, the human body was thought to reflect the morals of its owner. Physical exertion, such as exercise and singing, was considered a potential method of elevating the morals of disadvantaged individuals, helping them to keep on the straight and narrow. For example, many mines had their own choir and band, to keep miners occupied in a wholesome manner.

Today, choral singing is similarly perceived as healthy fun that brings different people together to take part in a creative activity. Singing creates communities: for example, those who sing while marching in a demonstration have a common goal. Attending and singing at church and political events has become less prevalent, but historian and amateur singer Josephine Hoegaerts, associate professor of cultural studies at the University of Helsinki, is impressed by the popularity of singing in groups in Finland.

Singing has traditionally been gendered.

According to Hoegaerts, men's singing has been typically associated with professionalism and skill, resulting in men receiving formal training in the field more often than women. Singing by women, on the other hand, has been associated with natural talent and inclination, partly due to their speaking voice, in itself considered melodic, and lullabies sung to children. Historically speaking, women’s opportunities for using their voice at all in public spaces have been extremely limited. Hoegaerts gives an example:

“Originally, voices on the radio were men. It was thought that women’s voices could not convey sensible information. Engineers even claimed that recording female voices was a technical impossibility due to their high pitch. The only female voice heard in formal nineteenth-century British politics was that of Queen Victoria.”

In this video, Josephine Hoegaerts speaks about the communal nature of singing and related historical changes, as well as what singing means to her personally. The video also includes a performance by the Academic Choral Society, a choir in which Hoegaerts also sings.