tenor, highest natural male voice. In medieval polyphony, tenor was the name given to the voice that had the cantus firmus, a preexisting melody, often a fragment of plainsong, to which other voices in counterpoint were added. The cantus was arranged in notes of long duration, hence the term tenor, from the Latin tenere, to hold. In about the 12th cent., when this practice arose, the various parts in polyphonic music were roughly equal in range, and it was some centuries later that tenor came to denote a voice of any certain range. The male alto range is termed countertenor. In certain families of instruments the member whose register corresponds to that of the tenor voice is called tenor, e.g., tenor horn and tenor trombone.
The tenor is the highest male voice within the modal register, just above the baritone voice. The typical tenor voice lies between the C one octave below middle C (C3) to the C one octave above middle C (C5). 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).

Within opera, the lowest note in the standard tenor repertoire is A2 (Mime, Herod), but few roles fall below C3 (one octave below middle C). The high extreme: many tenor roles in the standard repertoire call for a "tenor C" (C5, one octave above middle C). While some operatic roles for tenor require a darker timbre and fewer high notes, it is generally accepted that any tenor should be able to sing with a full timbre up to an A4. In the leggiero repertoire the highest note is an F5 (Arturo in I puritani), therefore, very few tenors can have this role in their repertoire.

Within musical theatre, most tenor roles are written between B3 and A4, especially the romantic leads, although some fall as low as Ab2 (such as Anthony in Sweeney Todd) and others as high as C5 (such as Bobby Strong in Urinetown).

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, 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 seventeenth century, partbooks labelled 'tenor' might contain parts for a range of voice types.

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.

Even so, one nearly ubiquitous facet of choral singing is the shortage of tenor voices. 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.

Other uses

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.

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 to D-above-high C, though it is written an octave lower. The "lead" in barbershop music is equivalent to the normal tenor range.

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."

In rock and hair metal, there is a style of singing that requires a tenor to use a head voice/falsetto scream to sing most of the melodies. This allows them to stay on high treble notes (many close to or on tenor C) for extended amounts of time. Singers of this style include Klaus Meine from Scorpions, Axl Rose from Guns N' Roses, Joe Elliot of Def Leppard, Brian Johnson and Bon Scott of AC/DC, Glenn Danzig of the Misfits, Dee Snider of Twisted Sister, and Kevin DuBrow of Quiet Riot.

Tenor voice classification

Within Choral and pop music, singers are classified into voice parts based almost solely on 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 vocal range (the lowest and highest notes that the singer can reach), 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.

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.) The categories are:

Leggiero tenor

The male equivalent of a lyric coloratura, this voice is light and very agile and is able to perform dextrous coloratura passages. The Leggiero tenor has a range of approximately the C one octave below middle C (C3) to the E above tenor C (E 5) with some leggiero tenors being able to sing up to the F or even G. This voice is the highest tenor voice and is sometimes referred to as "tenore di grazia". This voice is utilized frequently in the operas of Mozart, Rossini, Donizetti and Bellini, and the highest Baroque repertoire for tenors. Leggiero tenors also frequently perform roles in the light-lyric tenor repertoire.

Leggiero tenor roles in opera and operettas:

* Count Almaviva, The Barber of Seville (Rossini)
* Arturo, I puritani (Bellini)
* Belmonte, The Abduction from the Seraglio (Mozart)
* Elvino, La sonnambula (Bellini)
* Ernesto, Don Pasquale (Donizetti)
* Ferrando, Così fan tutte (Mozart)
* Gualtiero, Il pirata (Bellini)
* Lindoro, L'italiana in Algeri (Rossini)
* Nemorino, L'elisir d'amore (Donizetti)
* Don Ottavio, Don Giovanni (Mozart)
* Don Ramiro, La Cenerentola (Rossini)
* Tonio, La fille du régiment (Donizetti)

Leggiero tenor singers:

* John Aler
* Luigi Alva
* Rockwell Blake
* Alessandro Bonci
* Andre D'Arkor
* Juan Diego Flórez
* Alfredo Kraus
* William Matteuzzi
* Chris Merritt
* Tito Schipa
* Ferruccio Tagliavini
* Fritz Wunderlich

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). Lyric tenors can be divided into two groups:

  • Light lyric tenor- A light-lyric tenor has a slightly warmer sound than the Leggiero tenor and some coloratura facility but does not have quite as high of an upper extension as the leggiero tenor. This voice is used frequently within French comic operas.
  • Full lyric tenor- A full-lyric tenor that has a more mature sound than a light-lyric tenor and can be heard over a bigger orchestra.

Light-lyric tenor roles in opera and operettas:

* Chapelou, Le postillon de Lonjumeau (Adolphe Adam)
* George Brown, La dame blanche (François-Adrien Boïeldieu)
* Gérald, Lakmé (Delibes)
* Nadir, Les pecheurs de perles (Bizet)
* Vincent, Mireille (Gounod)

Full-lyric tenor roles in opera and operettas:

* Alfredo, La traviata (Verdi)
* David, Die Meistersinger von Nürnberg (Wagner)
* Duke of Mantua, Rigoletto (Verdi)
* Edgardo, Lucia di Lammermoor (Donizetti)
* Elvino, La sonnambula (Bellini)
* Faust, Faust (Gounod)
* Hoffman, The Tales of Hoffman (Offenbach)
* Idomeneo, Idomeneo (Mozart)
* Rodolfo, La bohème (Puccini)
* Roméo, Roméo et Juliette (Gounod)
* Tamino, Die Zauberflöte (Mozart)
* Werther, Werther (Jules Massenet)
* Wilhelm Meister, Mignon (Ambroise Thomas)

Lyric tenor singers:

* Roberto Alagna
* Marcelo Álvarez
* Giacomo Aragall
* Jussi Björling
* Joseph Calleja
* José Carreras
* Richard Crooks
* Giuseppe Di Stefano
* Salvatore Fisichella
* Miguel Fleta
* Beniameno Gigli
* Nicolai Gedda
* Ivan Koslovsky
* Mario Lanza
* Francesco Marconi
* John McCormack
* Luciano Pavarotti
* Alfred Piccaver
* Ion Piso
* Dmitri Smirnov
* Leonid Sobinov
* Richard Tauber
* Valentin Teodorian
* Joseph Schmidt
* Rolando Villazón

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 without strain. (They are also known as "lyric-dramatic" tenors.) Some spinto tenors may have a somewhat darker timbre than a lyric tenor as well, without being as dark as a dramatic tenor. Spinto tenors have a range from approximately the C one octave below middle C (C3) to the D one octave above middle C (D5).

Spinto tenor roles in opera and operettas:

* Alvaro, La forza del destino (Verdi)
* Andrea Chénier, Andrea Chénier (Umberto Giordano)
* Canio, Pagliacci (Leoncavallo)
* Don Carlos, Don Carlos (Verdi)
* Don José, Carmen (Bizet)
* Erik, Der fliegende Holländer (Wagner)
* Ernani, Ernani (Verdi)
* Manrico, Il trovatore (Verdi)
* Mario Cavaradossi, Tosca (Puccini)
* Maurizio, Adriana Lecouvreur (Cilea)
* Pinkerton, Madama Butterfly (Puccini)
* Riccardo, Un ballo in maschera (Verdi)
* Turiddu, Cavalleria rusticana (Pietro Mascagni)

Spinto tenor singers:

* Fernand Ansseau
* Carlo Bergonzi
* Franco Bonisolli
* Enrico Caruso
* Antonio Cortis
* Charles Dalmores
* Bernardo De Muro
* Lev Klementiev
* Giacomo Lauri-Volpi
* Francesco Merli
* Aureliano Pertile
* Giovanni Martinelli
* Helge Roswaenge
* Georges Thill
* Richard Tucker

Dramatic tenor

Also "tenore di forza" or "robusto" – a ringing and very powerful, clarion heroic tenor. 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).

Dramatic tenor roles in opera and operettas:

* Calaf, Turandot (Puccini)
* Otello, Otello (Verdi)
* Radames, Aida (Verdi)
* Rodolfo, Luisa Miller (Verdi)
* Samson, Samson et Dalila (Saint-Saëns)

Dramatic tenor singers:

* Albert Alvarez
* Giuseppe Borgatti
* Enrico Caruso
* Franco Corelli
* Carlo Cossutta
* José Cura
* Mario Del Monaco* Jean de Reszke
* Plácido Domingo
* Leon Escalais
* Edoardo Ferrari-Fontana
* Giuseppe Giacomini
* Ramon Vinay
* Francesco Vinas
* Franz Volker
* Ivan Yershov
* Giovanni Zenatello


A rich, dark-toned, 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 any heldentenor's repertoire is arguably Wagner's Siegfried, an extremely demanding role requiring a wide vocal range, great stamina, and extended dramatic suspension. The Heldentenor has an approximate range from the C one octave below middle C (C3) to the C one octave above middle C (C5).

Heldentenor roles in opera and operettas:

* Florestan, Fidelio (Beethoven)
* Tannhäuser, Tannhäuser (Wagner)
* Loge, Das Rheingold (Wagner)
* Lohengrin, Lohengrin (Wagner)
* Parsifal, Parsifal (Wagner)
* Siegfried, Götterdämmerung (Wagner)
* Siegfried, Siegfried (Wagner)
* Siegmund, Die Walküre (Wagner)
* Walter von Stolzing, Die Meistersinger von Nürnberg (Wagner)
* Tristan, Tristan und Isolde (Wagner)

Heldentenor singers:

* Bernd Aldenhoff
* Paul Franz
* James King
* Carl Burrian
* Heinrich Knote
* Ernst Kraus
* Lauritz Melchior
* Ludwig Suthaus
* Set Svanholm
* Josef Tichatschek
* Jacques Urlus
* Jon Vickers
* Ludwig Schnorr von Carolsfeld
* Wolfgang Windgassen

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.

Tenor buffo roles in opera and operettas:

* Don Basilio, The Marriage of Figaro (Mozart)
* Mime, Siegfried (Wagner)
* Monostatos, The Magic Flute (Mozart)
* Pedrillo, The Abduction from the Seraglio (Mozart)

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

*Candide (Candide)
*Eisenstein (Die Fledermaus)
*Camille, Count de Rosillon (The Merry Widow)
*Prince Karl (The Student Prince)
*Captain Dick (Naughty Marietta)


Fächer Singer Role Composer Opera Example on
Leggiero tenor Juan Diego Florez Tonio Donizetti La fille du régiment    link
Light lyric tenor Luciano Pavarotti    link
Full lyric tenor Salvatore Fisichella Rodolfo Puccini La Boheme    link
Spinto tenor Mario Lanza Canio Leoncavallo Pagliacci    link
Dramatic tenor Franco Corelli Radames Verdi Aida    link
Heldentenor Lauritz Melchior Lohengrin Wagner Lohengrin    link
Tenor buffo Norbert Orth Monostatos Mozart The Magic Flute


Specific references: General references:

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

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