When I was in Iceland some of our group were invited to farms close to Reykjavik. The one I enjoyed most was a dairy farm that had been in the family for six generations. As luck would have it, the Adalsteinsson’s had six girls. They are all away from home now, so there is no one to carry on the family farm. Birgir’s wife, Asthildur is hopeful that one of their grandsons will take over when they are ready to retire.

The farm work is demanding for two people to handle. They have 340 hectares, 350 cows, six horses , 40 cows that needed milking and a garden. When we were there, two of the cows were in the barn because they were ready to have their calves. Watching this couple as we moved around the farm, it was evident that they were used to hard work.


Asthildur whispered to me that Birgir had a beautiful voice and had been singing in a choir since he was eight. He belongs to a 65-member choir and if I wanted to see him on u-tube to check out the Karlakor Kjalnesinga Choir. When I got home I did just that and was amazed to see Birgir dressed in a tuxedo, as were his choir members and the singing was excellent. Now I was on a mission so I watched all five videos. But there were other Icelandic choirs as well and it was apparent that Icelandic men just love to sing.


It seems that male voice choirs hold a special place in Icelandic culture. To them, singing is a vital part of everyday life. It is their national identity; it is about being with other men: and about dealing with life’s ups and downs in a very positive way.

In Canada we have a hard time recruiting young boys because they consider singing to be a feminine thing. In Iceland the situation is completely the opposite. There, women’s choirs are overlooked by both men and women, while male choirs are found in every town and are considered to be very masculine.

Robert Faulkner of the University of Western Australia migrated to Iceland in 1986 and spent 20 years there as a music educator and a researcher. He interviewed more than 50 members of the male choir in Hreimur, in rural Iceland and wrote a book on the subject.

He writes,” You might have expected these men to get the greatest pleasure from singing rousing soldiers’ choruses ….but what the men love singing most is the exact opposite of that.” What they love the most is beautiful, gentle lullabies in four-part harmony and singing them made them feel even more masculine. The men interviewed argued that women choirs don’t posses the expressive quality that male voices do. When Faulkner first heard this he thought it was some kind of male arrogance but strangely enough, many Icelandic women agreed. The women went on to say that they wouldn’t bother listening to a women’s choir, but they love to listen to a male choir.

What could be the reason for these differences? Iceland gained independence from Denmark in 1944 and only has a population of 350,000. It is isolated by the sea and was out of touch with cultural changes that took place in other parts of the continent. Comparing the transformation that took place from the 13
th century to the 19th century in Europe, and compare that to Iceland, it seems likely that Iceland missed out on a few hundred years of music development.

Petur Gudjonsson brought choir singing to Iceland in the 19
th century. He had sung in a choir in Denmark as a student. It caught on in Iceland and male voices have not stopped singing about Iceland’s beauty, its mountain, glaciers, hot streams and summer nights lit by the midnight sun. Faulkner goes on to say, ”The men talked a lot about the independence that comes from having a bit of space to try out your voice.” Singing from the top of a hill helps men unwind after a long day at work, just as we might sing in the shower or in our cars when no one can hear us. They sing away their anxieties and it helps them regulate their personal lives. When there was no mental health board available to these men, singing eased their pain and helped soothe others who needed help. As one of the men said, “Singing with your work mates can give you better health and more commitment to your job.”

This is backed up by recent studies done in Finland and Norway that reveal that music activates emotional, motor and creative areas of the brain. Two county hospitals in Norway found that staff choirs improved the sense of well being among employees.

Many surprises await visitors to Iceland especially for those who venture past Reykjavik. Dramatic landscapes, dynamic forces of ice, wind, water, and fire play a central role in shaping the Icelandic identity. And for many Icelandic men, life without singing would be no life at all.