Females in Music-Making, Lullabies, and Soprano-as-Melody

A recent discussion by David Huron, Corralling the Chorale: Moving Away from SATB, presented a compelling argument for finding new ways to present voice leading without the constraints of Baroque chorales.  Commenting, I picked one bone of contention with the statement quoted below.  I copy my response after in the hopes that we might discuss the topic further.

Throughout history and in nearly every documented culture, we have evidence of a pervasive prejudice against women. In many cultures, women's participation in music making was actively discouraged, highly restricted, or simply forbidden.

This applies to public music-making.  A mother or stand-in is and has been, of course, the primary singer of lullabies to her children.  Interesting to note that this tends to be a solo performance (my wife and I sing in harmony and heterophony, in addition to monophony, to our children).  I wonder if there is any reason thus that we tend to be conditioned to hearing highest-voice melodies.  In barbershop perhaps we don't seek the same effect since the voices are male. [So, the female voice tends to be the first singing voice a person hears in their life.]


  • This may not answer your query, but that whole discussion reminded me of David Lewin's "Women's Voices and the Fundamental Bass," The Journal of Musicology 10/4 (1992), 464–82, an illuminating discussion of the relation between female voice and musical structure in western music. Lewin begins with  the “Transfiguration” in Tristan and Isolde, noting that this line in register—like that of many other “transcendent” voices in the history of opera—could only be sung by a woman.  By analogy, instrumental music that follows  this model revels in a specific freedom accorded solely to the female voice, which is “typically acoustically free of what we conceive as a functional bass line­ whether continuo or fundamental bass” (the final two movements of Schoenberg’s Second String Quartet, Op. 10 serves as Lewin’s exemplar, p. 473). Lewin’s modest observation suggests rethinking the hierarchical importance placed on the fundamental bass in the history of music theory, and encourages a greater appreciation for the importance of upper voices and their play with the bass—and the notions of presence and absence—in musical structure.

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