What Is a Tenor?

A tenor is a male voice type with one of the highest vocal ranges for that gender. This group has a general set of defining characteristics and is further subdivided into five distinct types based on timbre, vocal weight, and tessitura, a singer’s most comfortable range. The dramatic and heldentenor are sub-types of the leggiero, lyric, and spinto. The typically pre-adolescent countertenor is a sixth type that is usually classified as a separate category.

Depending on the genre, tenors’ typical range ranges from one octave below middle C to an A4 or high C. Although the bass voice is the least common, it is a rare voice type. In choral settings, the majority of men are baritones, but the higher part is occasionally sung lower altos.

The male counterpart to a coloratura soprano is the light-lyric or leggiero Tenor. This species is extremely agile and can hit high notes ranging from C3 to D5. Operas Rossini and Mozart, among others, frequently feature roles for the highest type of tenor. A lyric tenor is a singer who has a warmer tone and a brighter timbre than a leggiero. Many different vocal weights, timbres, and tessituras are included in this broad category.

The spinto tenor has a heavier vocal weight and a slightly lower range. Although a spinto’s range is similar to that of other tenors, he or she may be able to hit several lower notes under one octave below middle C. These parts require a higher level of drama than leggiero or lyric parts.

A dramatic tenor has the lowest range in this category, with the ability to reach several notes below C3 and a tessitura similar to that of a baritone. The timbre varies, from darker and weightier to brassy and dramatic. The title character in Verdi’s Otello and Florestan in Beethoven’s Fidelio are two dramatic tenor roles.

The heldentenor is the darkest and most dramatic of the tenors. Although their range is still impressive, reaching as high as a high B or C at times, many of them are transitioned baritones with strong upper registers. This type is frequently seen as the protagonist in Wagnerian works, such as Loge in Das Rheingold or Siegfried in the opera of the same name.

The countertenor has the most range of any male voice type, though it is sometimes classified as its own voice type. Pre-adolescent males usually embody it, and its range is comparable to that of a female contralto. The range of a G below middle C to a F one octave above that note is typical.