Monday, August 07, 2023

Is there a difference between “men’s songs” and “women’s songs”?

I often come across choir leaders asking for “men’s songs” for the men in their choirs.

It make me wonder: is there a difference between “men’s songs” and “women’s songs” and what does that even mean?

I personally don’t believe there are types of songs that are more suited to one particular gender. Songs are songs, whoever sings them. The most important factor is whether the singers like the song or not. There are many different choirs out there catering for many different tastes.

Of course, if an arrangement is for only male or only female voices, then you need to take that into account. But otherwise, there is no reason why men or women can’t sing any song.

However, here are some possible reasons why people might think there are songs for men and songs for women.

gender specific lyrics

The subject matter of a song or the story it tells may be gender specific. For example, a love song about a boy pining for a particular girl. Or a song about why it’s so great being a woman. Or an old folk song encouraging young women not to marry.

You can, however, change the lyrics to suit your singers. For example, instead of boy meets girl, it becomes girl meets boy.

A great example of this is Cold rain and snow, an American folk song. The original lyrics begin “Lord, I married me a wife, She gave me trouble all my life, Made me work in the cold rain and snow”. The lyrics were re-written by the Fiddle Puppets to read: “Since I became a wife, I’ve had trouble all my life, You ran me out in the cold rain and snow”, the whole song is changed to be from the woman’s point of view.

You could also keep the lyrics as they are and treat a song ironically or as a comedic addition to your repertoire.

You could also leave it exactly as it is and sing it straight, even though the gender seems to be ‘wrong’. For example, I’ve often given the melody of Lowlands Away to the men, even though it’s about a woman waiting for her drowned lover to return from sea. It’s a beautiful song, the men love singing the tune, and the story still carries.

work songs

The nature of work has changed over time with, for example, female engineers and male nurses becoming commonplace. However, a lot of old songs come from very specific times and contexts. For example, prisoners singing chain gang songs to help them with their work were usually men. Those singing songs as they waulked the tweed were invariably women.

But there is no reason why such songs can’t be sung by singers of either gender, with suitable contextualising and respect of course.

stereotyped interests

Long gone (I hope) are the days when only men liked football, and only women knitted. However, there is still a legacy of this thinking when it comes to men’s and women’s songs.

There is a strange belief that to get men to sing you need to sing sea shanties or football chants or boisterous rugby songs. Women (presumably) will only respond to love songs and songs which are gentle and delicate. Of course, this is also very hetero-normative and doesn’t consider gay, queer or non-binary singers who obviously have a range of different interests.

Whether it’s groups such as She Shanties (women singing sea shanties) or men singing lullabies to their babies, these stereotypes are ripe for challenge.

vocal quality

It might be that certain songs only come to life when sung in a particular vocal register or timbre. Men’s and women’s voices do sound different. Even when women sing tenor and men sing countertenor you can hear slight differences from when the other gender is singing that part.

But even if that’s the case, there are plenty of examples of this being subverted.

For example, there are lots of covers by women of gravelly-voiced Tom Waits songs (see The 7 best Tom Waits covers sung by women). Simplistic, I know, but vocal quality is no barrier to which gender sings a particular song.

it’s all about the arrangement

When it comes down to it, songs that will attract a specific gender of singer are all down to the arrangement.

Of course, the parts need to be in the range of the singers, but more importantly each part has to be interesting. So often songs for men have boring bass parts and songs for women have boring alto parts. If you want to attract singers of a particular gender, make sure you have songs with great arrangements for all parts.

over to you

What do you think? Are there “songs for men” and “songs for women”? How would you distinguish between them?

Chris Rowbury


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