Where are the female virtuosos?

In a previous post I noted that when we watch someone perform music or dance, we are, on some level, judging them as a potential mate. Dancing requires heightened physical fitness which is attractive in a mate, and music composition and performance require intelligence and “quick thinking” which is also desirable. (I touched on this point about a year ago in this article on reality TV star Susan Boyle.)

In the area of music performance, I also noted that women seem to find male virtuosos more attractive than men find female virtuosos. Could this explain why there are fewer female virtuosos than male?

Well, first we need to unpack that question — is it even true? In terms of instrument playing, in the world of rock, jazz, R&B and “popular music”, I would say yes. Thinking of the guitar, I can create a list of male virtuosos — Jimi Hendrix, Yngwie Malmsteen, Eddie Van Halen* etc. — without even trying. Female guitar virtuosos? I have to think… maybe Lita Ford and the relatively unknown jazz guitarist Emily Remler come to mind. (Charo?) But there’s not a lot of them.

* I am admittedly defining “virtuoso” here as someone who is a master of the technical aspects of guitar playing. Nonetheless, I think with most accepted definitions of the term (Andy Summers or Albert King may not be technical masters of the instrument, but are still virtuosic), you will see far more men than women.

This may not be true in on the realm of classical music. There’s a fair number of female virtuoso violinists — Hillary Hahn, Midori. And this is probably true with other instruments as well.

Of course playing an instrument is not the only form of music performance. In terms of singing, my gut sense is that men and women are matched pretty evenly. I don’t have to think hard to come up with a list of female virtuoso singers — Billie Holiday, Beverly Sills, Mariah Carey.

Okay — so women seem underrepresented on instruments in nonclassical genres, and well represented in singing. I think one can make a credible argument that classical music is an exception because its entire culture is rooted in intellectualism and escaping the “urges” of the human animal. As is noted in “This Is Your Brain on Music” the whole idea of classical performance, where the audience sits quietly while the performers play, is entirely at odds with tribal music which was something of a group sport — there was much less delineation between audience and participant (in this sense, punk really was a return to man’s roots.)

Does this leave us with the statement that there’s something about singing that men find more attractive than playing an instrument? Possibly, but I’m not sure what that difference would be.

1 Response to “Where are the female virtuosos?”


  1. John Saleeby

    Just because a girl has lost her virtuosity doesn’t necessarily mean she is some kind of a whore!