What is a Tenor?
A Tenor has a high-pitched voice that falls between the Baritone and Alto voice types. The word comes from the old French medieval Latin word tenere, which means to hold. This is because the Tenor, being above the other male-associated voicetypes, often held the melody.
What is the Tenor range?
A Tenor has a range from B2 up to C5 in chest voice. It's rare for Tenors to be able to sing below this, but in some cases can extend a few notes lower to around A2 or Ab2. In rare cases a Tenor can sing up to E5 in chest voice. Please don’t try this unless you are an advanced singer. There are rarely if ever any situations that require this high of a chest voice sound!
Alternatively, Tenors can sing in head voice up to A5 and occasionally up to C6 in rare circumstances with certain countertenors.
How do I determine if I’m a Tenor?
Range: The first way to determine if you are a Tenor is to see if you can sing comfortably in the middle of this range from D2 to A4. This is often referred to as your tessitura, meaning your voice has the best and most natural sound quality in a particular range, usually excluding the very extreme edge of your range on either side!
Tone: A Tenor typically has a brighter and lighter tone with lots of pingy resonance compared to the Baritone and Bass voice types.
Passaggio: The other way to determine if you are a Tenor is to determine where your “break range” also known as you passaggio is. This is where your voice cracks or with proper training transitions smoothly from chest voice to head voice. A Tenor is typically going to be transitioning out of chest voice into head voice through their passaggio around F#4 or G#4.
A countertenor is the male equivalent term to a contralto, which is a lower alto and in some cases even the range of a mezzo-soprano voice type. This type of Tenor is going to sing more in head voice than the other types of Tenor subcategories. Although this term was reserved specifically for an older style of music, many contemporary Tenors utilize a lot of head voice singing in their music. For reference, I initially trained Classically as a Leggero and sometimes somewhat Lyric Tenor. Although I did not train Classically as a countertenor, in contemporary music I tend to sing in the countertenor range very often, especially when working with female students.
Here is a list of some Tenor subtypes:
Leggero tenor: This type of tenor has a graceful and light tone that is particularly agile and flexible and sits comfortable in the highest tessitura
Tenor buffo and spieltenor: This type of tenor is defined by their ability to act well and create character voices. They have a very similar range to a Leggero Tenor and are defined more by the types of roles they perform.
Lyric tenor: A graceful and warm Tenor with a bright and full timbre that is strong enough to be heard over a full orchestra, but still not heavy. This Tenor also sits in a higher tessitura.
Spinto tenor: This Tenor is heavier and more pressed sounding with a solid and rich middle range. The tessitura is generally a little lower than the last two subtypes.
Dramatic tenor: A big emotive and powerful voice that can sing high, but generally does not hang out in the higher register with a lot of agility. This voice type is a little more rare as the tone is similar to a Baritone, but with the range of a Tenor. Like all the other voice subtypes in other ranges in the Classical setting, Dramatic is a term that exists in contrast to Lyric.
Heldentenor: A very rare and exceptionally heavy sounding Tenor built for singing Wagnerian Operas that require a bellowing sound and lots of stamina.
Who are some famous Tenors?
Some famous classical Tenors are Luciano Pavorati, Enrico Caruso, Placido Domingo, Jose Carreras, John McCormack, Alfredo Kraus, and Andrea Bocelli.
Some famous contemporary Tenors are Freddie Mercury, Marvin Gaye, Michael Jackson, Art Garfunkle, Bruno Mars, Ed Sheeran, Stevie Wonder, Elton John, Justin Timberlake, Paul McCartney, The Weekend, Neil Young, Donny Hathaway, Ben Gibbard, Nate Ruess and many more.
As you can see Tenors are a very popular voice type for a lot of contemporary music genres. Its word root for “holding the melody” due to the soaring bright quality seems to be still somewhat true to this day!
Exercises to Focus on
Tenors tend to sing much higher than other lower voice types and traditionally bring their chest voice very high, especially in Classical music. The most important thing to watch for is tension in the jaw and tongue that can accumulate as you try to maintain a bright ringing tone. Don’t let your chin lift up as you sing higher notes as this will close off the resonance from the back of the throat and cause you to push or strain harder. Instead, focus on resonance and low support.
Tenors can sometimes get obsessed with reaching higher and higher notes, but most important is trying to maintain a full, more grounded tone. An unsupported Tenor can sound very light and thin and an overbearing one sometimes especially nasal or harsh.
Focus on balancing your brighter tone, by adding some space and cover or darkness to the tone by having ample space and solid support. Otherwise this sound can get annoyingly bright and tight with lots of cracking! Be patient as it can take some time to find release and a rich tone in your higher register.