For many people around the world, Christmas doesn't begin until the radio has been tuned to the BBC World Service on Christmas Eve to savour that moment when a boy chorister from the King's College Chapel Choir in Cambridge floats the opening verse of Once in Royal David's City. This tradition of the Festival of Nine Lessons and Carols dates back 90 years, but that's just the twinkling of an eye in the choir's long history stretching back to the mid-15th century. If you hold the King's College phenomenon to be the apex of choral excellence, it suggests that the pyramid has a broad base. This year the largest competitive choral event was held in Graz, Austria. The World Choir Games (WCG) may not have the ancient history of its Olympic counterpart, but it is no less a force in terms of intention. 'Singing together brings nations together' is its fanfare. Founded in 2000, the WCG is a biennial event for choirs from all over the world, regardless of style and repertoire. This opportunity for amateur singers to meet and compete has proved enormously popular, as borne out by this year's burgeoning statistics: 441 choirs from 93 countries competing in 28 categories with more than 600 performances before 70 international jurors. Hong Kong's Diocesan Boys' School clinched first place in the Young Male Choirs category. With the mainland having hosted the WCG's 2006 gathering in Xiamen and already tuning up to stage the 2010 event in Shaoxing, choirs in the region look set to consolidate their presence in the future. Choral singing is not only accessible, it also has amazing breadth (gospel, barbershop, philharmonic, jazz, church, school) and pedigree. The glories of Europe's Renaissance choral works leave no doubt that taking part in their original performances involved skills unsurpassed today. The unique qualities of their voices and the benefits of choral singing were fully appreciated by musicians such as the 16th-century English composer William Byrd. His Psalmes, Sonnets and Songs, written in 1588, contains the immortal couplet: Since singing is so good a thing, I wish all men would learn to sing. Byrd maintained that choral works outclassed all forms of instrumental music. He asserted that singing improved health by strengthening the lungs, provided a cure for stammering and gave public orators an excellent foundation. Members of the Hong Kong Welsh Male Voice Choir fit Byrd's template. The group is also a good example of a choral melting pot of ages, backgrounds and professions. Dispute resolution analyst Geoff Mann has been a member for more than 10 years. He enjoys both the 'relaxation and destressing effect' of regular rehearsals and the dimension of being part of a global network that gathers member choirs every two years for a jamboree in London's Royal Albert Hall. The Hong Kong contingent was there in October, alongside representatives from the United States, Australia, Slovenia, England and Wales. They are never fazed by the challenge of filling the 5,000-seat hall with nothing but their voices. 'The microphones are there for recording, not for amplification,' Mr Mann says. 'The combined strength of a thousand choristers' voices has been found to be more than sufficient.' He brings back many memories from such events, 'but the biggest buzz is the three seconds of silence after we've finished a song, just before the standing ovation'. The Vienna Boys' Choir is also made up of singing ambassadors. It has been recognised as a symbol of Austria since 1498 when Emperor Maximilian I made provision for 12 boys to be included in the Imperial Court's musical resources. To this day, the choir fulfils its original duty of singing Solemn Mass every Sunday in Vienna's Hofburg Chapel. Many eminent musicians can trace their roots to membership of a choir, and the Vienna Boys' Choir boasts an impressive hall of fame. Franz Schubert's talent was noted at his entrance examination, while the singing experience he gained stoked the coals for his vast output of songs. Austrian composer Joseph Haydn also occasionally performed with the choir, presaging the religious choral masterpieces he wrote. As Vienna's court organist in the 19th century, composer Anton Bruckner would try out his new masses with the boy choristers. We're told he would reward them with cake if a performance went well. Hong Kong's own choirs will be performing seasonal songs over the coming weeks. Shopping malls and hotels lend a casual backdrop to many carollers, but more formalised treats can be found in churches across the city or in the comfort of the concert hall. The Hong Kong Oratorio Society will be wishing you A Very Happy Merry Christmas at its show in the Cultural Centre on December 14, while the Kassia Women's Choir and Men's Chorus are joining forces on the following two evenings to present their take on the spirit of A Christmas Carol at Sheung Wan Civic Centre. Returning to the more cloistered atmosphere of the Christmas Eve broadcast from King's College, one person preparing to turn on the radio and turn back the clock is Robin Tyson, a former counter-tenor with the choir. He went on to become a member of the King's Singers, the a cappella vocal group that performed to a packed house in Hong Kong earlier this year. The group's winning formula has never wavered since its debut concert in 1968. 'What the King's Singers find time and time again on their travels is that all over the world there is an incredible enthusiasm for singing,' Mr Tyson says. 'We offer a performance at the highest level: musicality, tuning, blend and balance are all on display. If you add the British humour, you have a product that is feted around the world and continues to be in demand. There's hard work involved as well, of course, but on the surface the swan glides along effortlessly.' He recalls the nerve-wracking excitement of his first broadcast of the King's College carol service as an undergraduate. 'I went to bed the night before, having passed a queue of people camping out for the night to get one of the few seats available to the public,' he says. 'That did it - I couldn't sleep. Three pm the following day couldn't come quickly enough, but when it did and the singing began, I remember feeling incredibly emotional. Predictably, I suppose, I was unable to sing my part in Once in Royal David's City.' Maybe that's his most poignant memory of his time with the choir, but not the most enduring. 'The choir exists to sing a daily service and what I remember most are those simple, quiet services of Tudor music sung on a cold February evening inside what has to be Europe's finest example of perpendicular architecture.'