A personal journey

Far from being a uniform stage of development, voice change is something that affects all boys and girls differently. An understanding of this is key to good singing at Key Stage 3, writes Martin Ashley

Almost every boy and girl will undergo a process of voice change at Key Stage 3 lasting several years (never say ‘break’, which gives a negative connotation to something natural). Here are three golden rules to keep changing voices free from physical harm:

  • Sing gently. Never demand loud singing.
  • Use mainly the new notes that appear at the bottom of the voice. This will give you a limited range, often less than an octave.
  • Treat every student as an individual and differentiate accordingly. You cannot go by year group or chronological age.

An initial sort-out

To get us started, here are the three fundamental changing voice types in boys:

  • Unchanged (high voice). Found mostly in Y7, but there will be some in Y8 and even a few in Y9.
  • Beginning change (cambiata). Found mostly in Y8, but there will be quite a few in both Y7 and Y9.
  • Completing change (baritone). Most common in Y9, but not uncommon in Y8 and sometimes even found in Y7.

Before we look at examples of each type, here's a fun way of finding out what you've got in a new class. Have everybody stand and keep singing Oh when the saints in the key of D major (note: the range is a fifth). If you have any boys completing change, they will automatically sing it an octave below. Whiz round the class to identify them and indicate for them to sit down and stop singing. Now, with the remainder still standing, transpose up a fourth to G major – more will drop an octave. You have found the cambiata boys who can now also sit down. If done with boys on their own, you may well be left with some still standing who are unchanged trebles. In a mixed-gender class, though, it may be only the girls left standing. It’s probably best to accept this, as boys may not want to be identified as the ones who 'sing like girls'.

In girls, typical symptoms of voice change are breathy tone, contracting range, shifting tessitura and the appearance of breaks between different parts of the voice. Experts recommend against classifying girls as soprano or contralto at this age, when they need reassurance that their difficulties are due to voice change and are therefore temporary. For more information, read Lynne Gackle’s Finding Ophelia’s Voice, Opening Ophelia’s Heart: Nurturing the Adolescent Female Voice: An Exploration of the Physiological, Psychological, and Musical Development of Female Students (Heritage).

Finding an individual's range

During voice change, the lowest sung note will usually be about two or three semitones below the average pitch of the speaking voice. A common way of finding this is to ask the student to count slowly backwards from twenty and find the note on a keyboard that most closely matches the pitch you hear. Then go down three semitones and you will have the lowest possible singing note. If you go up a sixth from the speaking note, you will have the highest note that can comfortably be sung. Some students will be able to go higher, but none lower. It’s not a good idea to go higher for too long.

Some typical girls

First, not all girls will have high voices. Here are two that don’t.

‘Andrea’ happily sang anywhere between middle C and top G in primary school. Now, in Y7, she can’t get much more than an octave above middle C and experiences a shift in tone around the G. Her voice has also gone quite breathy.

‘Harriet’ was found trying to sing with the cambiata boys because, she said, it was uncomfortable going any higher. Her teacher said she must be an alto, but she couldn’t get much below middle C either.

Some typical boys

First, unchanged (high) voices. Remember, these can be found right across KS3.

‘Oliver’ is in Y7, aged 11 years and nine months. Anything from the Song Bank that went well in Y6 will go even better for him in Y7. His voice hasn’t really begun to change, and his lowest note has hardly altered since Y6 (G below middle C). He can still sing comfortably at least up to an octave above middle C, and higher when he comes to choir. Y7 will be his last – and best – year with a high voice. There are many Olivers in Y7.

‘Henry’ is also a high voice but he’s in Y9. At the beginning of the spring term (January) he is a month off 14, though his speaking voice is almost the same as Oliver’s. Henry couldn’t quite find the right key for the song ‘May it be’ from Lord of the Rings – in the key of A flat the bottom note was a little too low, but in the key of B flat the top note of C was a little too high – a good example of the need to limit range. By the end of Y9, Henry’s lowest singing note had dropped to the E flat below middle C, making him a cambiata with a tessitura of E to middle C. Two months later he began Y10 as a baritone.

Next, changing (cambiata) voices.

Now in Y8, ‘Matt’ has a speaking voice which has dropped a tone from where it was in Y7 (to around the B flat below middle C). He really enjoyed Now I’m a believer. Why? The range is a sixth, and the teacher wisely chose the key of G major (G below middle C to E above it), creating a near perfect fit with Matt’s cambiata tessitura.

‘David’, aged 12 and a half, wasn’t finding things as comfortable as Matt. Sometimes his voice would crack on the top note. His teacher persuaded him to slide from the top to the bottom of his voice. There were two voices – a high falsetto one, then a jump to a low teenage sounding voice. The teacher transposed Now I’m a believer to D major, allowing David to use his new voice in the range D to B in the octave below middle C.

Lastly, changed (baritone) voices.

‘Noah’, aged 11 and a half, developed a resistance to singing not long after moving to secondary school. His teacher had noticed that his speaking voice sounded more like a Y9. Taking him aside, she discovered he could sing right down to the B flat below tenor C. Although only Y7, Noah had a baritone range of B flat to about the F above. He felt uncomfortable singing lower than everyone else.

No such problem confronted ‘Keith’, aged one month under 14. He was quite proud of showing off his bottom G. Whatever the Y7s could sing in the octave of Middle C to the C an octave above, Keith could roar out an octave below.

In conclusion

Starting Y7, most voices will be unchanged. Whole- class singing with boys and girls on the same parts can help show the new intake that ‘we all sing here’, but by the end of Y9 there will be quite a variety of voice types. Monitor individual voices regularly – this will help you move from whole- class to group work, part-singing and individual differentiation. Remember, as those voices change and develop, so too can your understanding of this critical stage of vocal development.

The advice in this article is derived from Singing in the Lower Secondary School by Martin Ashley (OUP). You will find more detail about the different ranges for each voice type in this book, as well as accounts of how successful teachers have managed the Y7 to Y9 transition.


Experts Jane Werry and Professor Martin Ashley joined un on 23 February 2017 to discuss keeping singers engaged through their vocal change. Watch the Q&A video here.

Find out more about future events here and get involved in the #SUHotTopics discussion on Facebook and Twitter.


This article was written by Dr Martin Ashley. Martin Ashley is emeritus professor of education at Edge Hill University. He devised Boys Keep Singing with the National Youth Choirs of Great Britain and recently edited the Emerging Voices series for OUP. He has researched four books on changing voices.

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