Voice type
Female voices

Male voices


The tenor is a type of male singing voice and is the highest male voice within the modal register. The typical tenor voice lies between C3, the C one octave below middle C, to the A above middle C (A4) in choral music, and up to high C (C5) in solo work. The low extreme for tenors is roughly B2 (two Bs below middle C). At the highest extreme, some tenors can sing up to two Fs above middle C (F5).[1]

The term tenor is also applied to instruments, such as the tenor saxophone, to indicate their range in relation to other instruments of the same group.

Within opera, the lowest note in the standard tenor repertoire is A2 (Mime, Herod), but few roles fall below C3. The high extreme: a few tenor roles in the standard repertoire call for a "tenor C" (C5, one octave above middle C). Some (if not all) of the few top Cs in the standard operatic repertoire are either optional (such as in "Che gelida manina" in Puccini's La bohème) or interpolated (added) by tradition (such as in "Di quella pira" from Verdi's Il trovatore). Some operatic roles for tenor require a darker timbre and fewer high notes. In the leggiero repertoire the highest note is a traditionally interpolated F5 (Arturo in "Credeasi, misera" from I puritani), therefore, very few tenors can have this role in their repertoire.[2] A shift in pitch since the mid 19th century means that the few written top Cs (such as in "Salut demeure" from Gounod's Faust) would have in fact demanded a note at least a semitone lower than today's standard pitch.

Within musical theatre, most tenor roles are written between B2 and A4, especially the romantic leads, although some fall as low as A2 and others as high as G5.


Origin of the term

The name "tenor" derives from the Latin word tenere, which means "to hold". In medieval and Renaissance polyphony between about 1250 and 1500,[citation needed] the tenor was the structurally fundamental (or 'holding') voice, vocal or instrumental. All other voices were normally calculated in relation to the tenor, which often proceeded in longer note values and carried a borrowed Cantus firmus melody. Until the late 15th century introduction of the contratenor bassus, the tenor was usually the lowest voice, assuming the role of providing a harmonic foundation. It was also in the 15th century that "tenor" came to signify the male voice that sang such parts. Thus, for earlier repertoire, a line marked 'tenor' indicated the part's role, and not the required voice type. Indeed, even as late as the eighteenth century, partbooks labelled 'tenor' might contain parts for a range of voice types.[3]

Tenor in choral music

In four-part choral music, the tenor is the second lowest voice, above the bass and below the soprano and alto. While certain choral music does require the first tenors to ascend the full tenor range, the majority of choral music places the tenors in the range from approximately B2 up to A4. The requirements of the tenor voice in choral music are also tied to the style of music most often performed by a given choir. Orchestra choruses require tenors with fully resonant voices, but chamber or a cappella choral music (sung with no instrumental accompaniment) can rely on light baritones singing in falsetto.[4]

Even so, one nearly ubiquitous facet of choral singing is the shortage of tenor voices.[5][6][7] Most men tend to have baritone voices and for this reason the majority of men tend to prefer singing in the bass section of a choir (however, true basses are even rarer than tenors). Some men are asked to sing tenor even if they lack the full range, and sometimes low altos are asked to sing the tenor part.[4] The late 19th century saw the emergence of male choirs or TTBB (Tenor1, Tenor2, Bass1, Bass2). In the USA these are sometimes called Glee Clubs. The Welsh choirs are perhaps the best personification of this type of choir. Male Choirs sing specially written music for male choirs, music adapted from mixed sex choirs and in most genres including classical, sacred, popular and show. Male choirs differ from Barbershop choirs in that they are usually accompanied, often by but not restricted to a piano. Male choirs are often larger than the Barbershop style partly because the foundation of the Barbershop style is the solo quartet sound. In Male Choirs, tenors will often sing both in chest tone and falsetto. As a result, a male choir has a wider pitch range than one consisting only of females. Some examples of male choirs are: The Morriston Orpheus Welsh Male Voice Choir, the Sydney Male Choir and the Treorchy Male Choir. There are some impressive male ensembles in the Russian Orthodox Church choral tradition and also there are some excellent Jewish ensembles. The UK's largest male voice choir, the London Gay Men's Chorus, for example, exhibits an extraordinary pitch range from counter tenor to basso profundo.

Other uses

There are four parts in Barbershop harmony: bass, baritone, lead, and tenor (lowest to highest), with "tenor" referring to the highest part. The tenor generally sings in falsetto voice, corresponding roughly to the countertenor in classical music, and harmonizes above the lead, who sings the melody. The barbershop tenor range is B-below-middle C (B3) to D-above-high C (D5), though it is written an octave lower. The "lead" in barbershop music is equivalent to the normal tenor range.[8]

In bluegrass music, the melody line is called the lead. Tenor is sung an interval of a third above the lead. Baritone is the fifth of the scale that has the lead as a tonic, and may be sung below the lead, or even above the lead (and the tenor), in which case it is called "high baritone."[9]

Though strictly not musical, the Muslim call to prayer (azan) is always chanted by tenors, possibly due to the highly placed resonance of the tenor voice which allows it to be heard from a longer distance than baritones or basses during pre-amplification times. Some such chanters (termed bilals) may modulate up to E3 in certain passages, while incorporating a distinctive Middle-Eastern coloratura run.

Tenor voice classification

Within choral and pop music, singers are classified into voice parts based almost solely on vocal range with little consideration for other qualities in the voice. Within classical solo singing, however, a person is classified as a tenor through the identification of several vocal traits, including range, vocal timbre, vocal weight, vocal tessitura, vocal resonance, and vocal transition points (lifts or "passaggio") within the singer's voice. These different traits are used to identify different sub-types within the tenor voice sometimes referred to as fächer (sg. fach, from German Fach or Stimmfach, "vocal category"). Within opera, particular roles are written with specific kinds of tenor voices in mind, causing certain roles to be associated with certain kinds of voices.[10]

Here follows the operatic tenor fächer, with examples of the roles from the standard repertory that they commonly sing. It should be noted that there is considerable overlap between the various categories of role and of voice-type; and that some singers have begun with lyric voices but have transformed with time into spinto or even dramatic tenors. (Enrico Caruso is a prime example of this kind of vocal development.) It must be said that in the operatic canon the highest top note generally written by composers is B. Top Cs are rare (they are either given as oppure that is, up to the singer to interpolate or are traditional additions). An ability to sing C and above, therefore, is musically superfluous. Indeed, many famous tenors never even attempted C at least on record—for example, in Caruso's 1906 recording of "Che gelida manina", the whole aria is transposed to avoid the oppure top C. This is a normal transposition.

Leggiero tenor

The male equivalent of a lyric coloratura, this voice is a light lyric instrument, is very agile and is able to perform difficult passages of fioritura. The Lirico-Leggiero tenor has a range of approximately the C one octave below middle C (C3) to the D above tenor C (D5), with a few leggiero tenors being able to sing F5 and even higher while maintaining quality to the sound. Similarly, the lirico-leggero may be able to sing a little lower than the C3. The voice is the highest operatic tenor voice and is sometimes referred to as "tenore di grazia". This voice is utilized frequently in the operas of Mozart, Rossini, Donizetti and the highest Baroque repertoire for tenors.

Lirico-Leggiero tenor roles in operas:[2]

Lirico-leggiero tenor singers:

Lyric tenor

A warm graceful voice with a bright, full timbre that is strong but not heavy and can be heard over an orchestra. Lyric tenors have a range from approximately the C one octave below middle C (C3) to the D one octave above middle C (D5) with some able to sing up to E5 and higher. Similarly, their lower range may extend a few notes below the C3. There are many vocal shades to the lyric tenor group, repertoire should be selected according to the weight, colors, and abilities of the voice.

Lyric tenor roles in operas:[2]

Lyric tenor singers:

Spinto tenor

This voice has the brightness and height of a lyric tenor, but with a heavier vocal weight enabling the voice to be "pushed" to dramatic climaxes with less strain than the lighter-voice counterparts. (They are also known as "lyric-dramatic" tenors.) Spinto tenors have a darker timbre than a lyric tenor, without having a vocal color as dark as many (not all) dramatic tenors. However, other spinto tenors, such as Jussi Björling or Carlo Bergonzi have brightly colored and lyrical sounding voices, but are nevertheless able to perform spinto roles due to fairly large vocal size.[2] Spinto tenors have a wide range of flexibility within the fach system being able to perform such roles as Radames in Aida and Don Alvaro in La forza del destino as well as lighter roles such as the Duca in Rigoletto and Werther. The German equivalent of the Spinto fach is the Jugendlicher Heldentenor and encompasses many of the Dramatic tenor roles as well as some Wagner roles such as Lohengrin and Siegmund. The difference is often the depth and metal in the voice where some lyric tenors age or push their way into singing as a Spinto giving them a lighter tone and Jugendlicher Heldentenors tend to be either young heldentenors or true lyric dramatic voices giving them a dark dramatic tenor like tone. Spinto tenors have a range from approximately the C one octave below middle C (C3) to the C one octave above middle C (C5), and, like the lyric tenors, they are often capable of reaching D5 and sometimes higher. Similarly, their lower range may extend a few notes below C3.[2]

Spinto tenor roles in operas:[2]

Spinto tenor singers:

Dramatic tenor

Also "tenore di forza" or "robusto" – an emotive, ringing and very powerful, clarion, heroic tenor sound. The dramatic tenor has an approximate range from the C one octave below middle C (C3) to the C one octave above middle C (C5).[2] Many successful dramatic tenors have historically avoided the coveted high C in performance. Their lower range tends to extend into the baritone tessitura or, a few notes below the C3, even down to A♭2. Some dramatic tenors have a rich and dark tonal colour to their voice (such as the mature Enrico Caruso) while others (like Francesco Tamagno) possess a bright, steely timbre.

Dramatic tenor roles in operas:[2]

Dramatic tenor singers:


A rich, dark, powerful and dramatic voice. As its name implies, the Heldentenor (English: heroic tenor) vocal fach features in the German romantic operatic repertoire. The Heldentenor is the German equivalent of the tenore drammatico, however with a more baritonal quality: the typical Wagnerian protagonist. The keystone of the heldentenor's repertoire is arguably Wagner's Siegfried, an extremely demanding role requiring a wide vocal range and great power, plus tremendous stamina and acting ability. Often the heldentenor is a baritone who has transitioned to this fach or tenors who have been misidentified as baritones. Therefore the heldentenor voice might or might not have facility up to high B or C. The repertoire, however, rarely calls for such high notes. A Heldentenor is sometimes less a true tenor than a baritone with an unusually strong top register. Lauritz Melchior epitomises the Heldentenor sound in this regard.

Heldentenor roles in operas:[2]

Heldentenor singers:

Tenor buffo or Spieltenor

A tenor with good acting ability, and the ability to create distinct voices for his characters. This voice specializes in smaller comic roles. The range of the tenor buffo is from the C one octave below middle C (C3) to the C one octave above middle C (C5). The tessitura of these parts lies lower than the other tenor roles. These parts are often played by younger tenors who have not yet reached their full vocal potential or older tenors who are beyond their prime singing years. Only rarely will a singer specialize in these roles for an entire career.[2] In French opéra comique, supporting roles requiring a thin voice but good acting are sometimes described as 'trial', after the singer Antoine Trial (1737–1795), examples being in the operas of Ravel and in The Tales of Hoffmann.[11]

Tenor buffo or Spieltenor roles in operas:[2]

Tenor buffo or Spieltenor singers:


Tenor roles in operetta: All of the Gilbert and Sullivan operettas have at least one lead lyric tenor character; other notable roles are:

Non-vocal use

A tenor is a classification of drum used in a drum corps or drum-line. The tenor drum consists of 5 or 6 drums of different tones, 4, 3, 2, 1, and one or two spocks. 4 is the lowest sounding drum and the right spock is the highest sounding drum. Tenors are also referred to as quads because of the four main drums, or quints including the spocks. The tenors, in a drum cadence, are usually a combination of bass drum and snare drum beats to give the cadence more of a groove.

See also

  • List of tenors in non-classical music


Specific references:

  1. ^ McKinney, James (1994). The Diagnosis and Correction of Vocal Faults. Genovex Music Group. ISBN 978-1565939400. 
  2. ^ a b c d e f g h i j k Boldrey, Richard (1994). Guide to Operatic Roles and Arias. Caldwell Publishing Company. ISBN 978-1877761645. 
  3. ^ Stark, James (2003). Bel Canto: A History of Vocal Pedagogy. University of Toronto Press. ISBN 978-0802086143. 
  4. ^ a b Smith, Brenda (2005). Choral Pedagogy. Plural Publishing, Inc. ISBN 978-1597560436. 
  5. ^ Shortage of tenors acknowledged (but blamed on cultural discouragement)
  6. ^ Joseph Callega interview: mentions shortage of tenors
  7. ^ The disciplines of vocal pedagogy By Karen Sell: mentions shortage of tenors
  8. ^ Averill, Gage (2003). Four Parts, No Waiting: A Social History of American Barbershop Harmony. Oxford University Press. ISBN 978-0195116724. 
  9. ^ Cantwell, Robert (2002). Bluegrass Breakdown: The Making of the Old Southern Sound. University of Illinois Press. ISBN 978-0252071171. 
  10. ^ Appelman, D. Ralph (1986). The Science of Vocal Pedagogy: Theory and Application. Indiana University Press. ISBN 978-0253203786. 
  11. ^ Cotte RJV. Trial, French family of musicians. In: The New Grove Dictionary of Opera. Macmillan, London and New York, 1997.

General references:

  • David Fallows, Owen Jander. "Tenor", Grove Music Online, ed. L. Macy, grovemusic.com (subscription required)

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