Gender in Music

Choral music has a rich history of gender issues. Years ago women were not allowed to sing in performances and men and boys would play female roles—yet another example when men did everything. In church music men and boys have been used for centuries in choral music and celebrated has countertenor and sopranist. So why have we allowed gender to trickle into our rehearsals and our choir programs?

We are in a time where inclusive language is more important than it has ever been. Our non-binary and trans friends need us to see them and invite them into our spaces. They want to feel just like you and me, they don’t want special treatment. They just want to be seen and heard—just like you and me.

How can we do better in our churches and musical programs? Step one, stop gendering everything! Choral music directors—start using the part names or high voices and low voices instead of men and women. I started doing this years ago, and I admit there was a learning curve for me, but I do it well now. Also, composers have to do better in their notation. Having a section in a composition that says ‘men only’ or ‘women only’ shouldn’t be there. Write ‘low voices only’, ‘high voices only’, ‘soprano/alto only’, or ‘tenor/baritone’ only.

“But, Westley, I don’t have a trans or non-binary person in my choir.”

And?

Move forward with the times and be ready for when that person walks into your ensemble. Also, we have all had a woman sing tenor in our choir, she is no different. She is a tenor, not a man. Language is important folks, and the language we use affects people more than we can imagine.

Join me in on this journey of acceptance?

Westley Hodges
Associate for Music Ministries
St. Mark’s Episcopal Church, Evanston, IL

4 thoughts on “Gender in Music

  1. Jake Muzzarelli

    This is not something I have really ever thought about, but it makes so much sense! Thanks for the enlightenment. Keep fighting the good fight 🙂

    Like

  2. For psalms and hymn singing I often like to trade off between bass and treble voices. It’s been a process. I used to designate:
    St. 1 men, St. 2 women
    That became:
    St. 1 men, St. 2 women and treble voices (Here I was mostly thinking about boys with unchanged voices.)
    Now I’m using:
    St. 1 men and all bass clef singers, St. 2 women and all treble clef singers

    Yes, the words “men” and “women” are still there, but taking them out would confuse more people.

    I need to be better about “tenors and basses” vs “sopranos and altos” in rehearsal. Nobody there now is offended, but I don’t want future singers to feel excluded.

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    1. Yes!

      But I will say removing men and women will not confuse anyone. At St. Mark’s we do the psalm spoken by half verse in the Summer with the division being first, low voices, and second, high voice. No one is confused, and it works perfectly. We all have to do better, and it sounds like you are!

      Like

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