Tenor: Definition & Range

Instructor: Emma Riggle

Emma has taught college Music courses and holds a master's degree in Music History and Literature.

In this lesson, you'll learn about the tenor voice type. You'll learn about the average range of the tenor voice and how its range compares to other voice types. You'll also learn about some of the subcategories of tenor used in operatic literature.

What is a Tenor?

What do Paul McCartney, Hugh Jackman, and Luciano Pavarotti all have in common? Despite the fact that each of these men has sung very different styles of music, they all happen to be tenors! The term tenor can refer to the highest common voice category in adult males, or to a singer who possess that voice type.

Paul McCartney (far left) using his rock tenor voice with the Beatles

The tenor voice is a versatile and expressive instrument, capable of singing exciting high notes as well as lyrical mid-range melodies. That's why tenors have come to prominence in so many musical styles, often enjoying featured solos or leading man roles within their genres.

Paul McCartney displayed a beautiful tenor voice in rock music when he sang with the Beatles; Hugh Jackman has lent his tenor voice the recent film version of Les Misérables; and the late Luciano Pavarotti brought a new love of opera to the 80s and 90s with his powerful renderings of romantic heroes from the classical repertoire.

Tenor Range

In music, the term range refers to the distance between the lowest and the highest notes an instrument (or a voice) can produce. There are three main types of adult male voices, and these types are principally categorized by their range. The lowest male voice type is the bass voice, the medium-range type is the baritone, and tenor is the highest. Rarely, an adult male may have a singing voice higher than the average tenor range and can be designated a countertenor.

The categories of bass, baritone, tenor and countertenor are commonly used to distinguish between varieties of male vocal soloists. Choral music often uses only two designations for male voices: bass for the lower part, tenor for the higher. That is because most choral music is written for male and female adult voices in only four parts total. Listed in order from the highest range to the lowest, they are: soprano (the higher female part), alto (the lower female part), tenor, and bass.

By definition, a tenor's range will be higher than that of a baritone or a bass, but the exact vocal range of each singer is unique. To describe the average range of a tenor, we first need to decide whether we're talking about a tenor choral part, or a trained tenor soloist. Generally tenors with solo vocal training, especially classically trained tenors, have a larger range than choral tenors.

For example, the keyboard in Figure 1 illustrates the average tenor range used in choral music: from D below middle C to A above middle C.

Fig. 1
Tenor range

The keyboard in Figure 2 illustrates the larger average range of an operatic tenor soloist: two octaves, from C below middle C to C above middle C.

Fig. 2
Solo tenor range

Musicians have spent so much time categorizing various types of voices according to their ranges that you'll sometimes hear vocal categories used to describe musical instruments as well. For example, saxophones come in many sizes, each with their own range. The saxophone one size higher than the baritone sax is (you guessed it!) the tenor sax.

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