If you think of famous tenors, perhaps opera singers come to mind. However, some of the most well-known tenors in history include Freddie Mercury, Paul McCartney, and Billy Joel!
Do you want to learn tenor like a pro? This guide is for you!
What Is a Tenor?
When most people say “tenor,” they’re talking about male singing voices. Some women may be considered tenors, but for this guide, we’ll be referring to males.
A tenor is a male with a vocal range that’s in the highest register. There are three vocal ranges typically used to describe men. Bass is the lowest, and baritone is the mid-range. A tenor male feels most comfortable in the highest range of male voices.
The word tenor has been around for hundreds of years; it’s been a choir’s foundation since Medieval times. The word used to refer to a song’s melody, and a tenor will often carry the melody of a song even today. However, in some cases, you’ll hear a tenor voice harmonizing above his fellow singers.
Finally, a tenor switches between a chest voice and a head voice when he sings. Don’t worry about these terms; we’ll talk more about them later. For now, let’s get started talking about the tenor voice.
How Do I Know I’m a Tenor?
The easiest way to find out if you’re a tenor is to visit a vocal coach. He or she can listen to you sing (don’t worry, you don’t have to be perfectly on pitch) and assess where your voice naturally falls.
It’s important to note that the range of a tenor can vary greatly. Even as a tenor, you may be able to sing baritone notes easily. Some men have such a wide vocal range that they can sing in the bass register.
If you have access to a piano and can identify notes, you can determine for yourself whether you are a tenor in just three steps.
- Find the middle C.
- Sing up the scale and write down the highest you can comfortably reach.
- Sing down the scale and do the same.
If you can comfortably reach the C one octave (eight white keys) above and one octave below middle C, you’re likely a tenor.
There is no perfect age to begin learning how to sing tenor. Children and older adults can all be vocally trained. It’s important, though, to recognize what voice type you have so that you don’t get discouraged or, worse, damage your vocal cords.
Head Voice vs. Chest Voice: What’s What?
We mentioned earlier in this guide that you have a head voice and a chest voice. That may sound weird, but it’s actually quite simple. It doesn’t mean that you have different voices that come from different body parts. Let’s take a look at what it does mean.
A head voice refers to the sound you produce when you sing the notes at the high end of your register. The sound is made when your thin vocal cords vibrate.
You can visualize what we mean by “thin vocal cords” by picturing two rubber bands. One is thick, and the other is thin. If you were to stretch both bands across a tissue box and pluck each one, which would make a higher-pitched sound? The thin one!
Conversely, the thick rubber band makes a lower sound. Your thick vocal cords are at the low end of your register. This is what we mean when we say chest voice.
When you learn tenor singing, you’re going to eventually learn how to seamlessly slip between a chest voice and a head voice, then switch right back again. Try it now! Try sliding your voice from the lowest note you can reach to the highest.
It may not seem easy now, but you’ll get it! Professional singers who seem to do this flawlessly have years and years of practice and training.
Reading Music as a Tenor
There are a few things you should have under your belt before you learn to sing tenor. The first is the most important: you must learn how to read music!
When you’re looking at a sheet of music, you’ll usually see two sets of five lines each. Each of these is called a staff; the plural is staves. Together, they’re called a grand staff. The top staff is a treble clef, while the bottom is a bass clef. Each has its own symbol.
As a tenor, you’ll likely be reading music on both staves. Don’t worry, though; it’s not difficult once you find the middle C on your grand staff. It always looks the same, and once you learn where it is, it’s fairly easy to determine which notes to sing.
You can find tutorials online in various formats; choose online classes, video tutorials, or even computer software. Alternatively, you can book an appointment with a musician in your area. They don’t have to be a professional vocal coach; they just need to know how to read music!
If you already know how to read music, you’re in great shape. It’s time to move on to the next step.
Getting Your Head in the Tenor Game
Whether you’re a tenor, baritone, or bass, you’re going to need to make sure your voice is warmed up. Your vocal cords are muscles, and singing is exercise! You can do some serious damage to your vocal cords if you don’t warm up and cool down after you sing.
Warming up is actually quite simple, and there are a few ways you can do it. As with reading music, you can find tons of tutorials, videos, and guides online. A few of the techniques you may run into include:
- Tongue trills
- Pitch glides
We told you there were tons! That’s just a sampling of what you’ll find if you do a more in-depth search.
In addition to warming up and cooling down, it’s a good idea to keep some room temperature water on hand while you sing. Drink a cup of herbal tea (caffeine-free, please!) before you start, and add a bit of honey to coat your throat if you like. Cold water can actually hinder the movement of your throat muscles, so keep it warm.
Finally, if you’re just beginning to learn how to sing tenor, it’s going to be important that you understand that no one is born a star. Sure, the movies may have taught us otherwise, but singing well takes practice and persistence.
When you realize that perfection isn’t instantaneous, you’ll be less likely to get frustrated and quit. Don’t give up! Work on your skill, and you’ll be singing like you never knew you could before you know it.
Learn The Vocal Style with a Pro
The easiest and fastest way to learn this style is to hire a voice coach. These professionals are trained to train you, and they’re good at what they do! A professional vocal coach can assess your strengths and weaknesses and help you build on them and improve your art.
Vocal coaches may be good at what they do, but they’re not always cheap! You can expect to pay between $50-100 per hour for a voice coach.
Before you shop around for a voice teacher, we suggest you hop online and check out a few YouTube videos created by professionals. You’ll get an idea of what your voice lessons will entail and will also get a feel for whether singing is really your jam.
And when we say shop around, we mean it! Do your research both online and with area musicians. It’s important that your vocal coach:
- Is someone you feel comfortable with on a personal level
- Fits within your budget
- Is someone you can be in close proximity to
- Has a background in music, obviously
- Takes the time to learn your goals
- Doesn’t push you to study a genre you don’t love
You don’t have to choose a super-expensive vocal coach, either. Feel free to check out music students from a nearby university or even choir directors from your local church.
Put simply, your vocal coach should be someone you feel comfortable with. You’ll be spending time and money on this person. If it’s not a good fit, you can absolutely try someone different!
What if you can’t find the scheduling flexibility or the budget to hire a professional? That’s okay – let’s look at how you can learn to sing tenor on your own!
Learn Tenor on Your Own
Maybe you work a night shift and sleep during the day. Maybe you’re just in a rural area and don’t have professional voice coaches nearby. You can still learn tenor on your own.
We’ve mentioned several times in this guide that the internet is a fantastic resource for videos, classes, and tutorials. These are going to be excellent resources for you should you decide you want to fly solo.
These videos and other media will teach you what you need to know to sing tenor as an amateur. Expect to learn how to read music quickly, how to stand properly, how to breathe effectively, and how to project your voice. You may touch on how to sing vibrato (though that will come later), and you may even study some music theory.
There is, however, one aspect of singing you may miss out on if you’re self-taught: feedback. A good vocal coach can give you constructive criticism to help you improve. If you’re teaching yourself tenor, you’re on your own.
For those of you who want to learn independently, we do have a suggestion. You can consider joining a community or church choir. This may give you the encouragement and motivation you need to keep practicing when you get discouraged. You also may learn a thing or two from your fellow singers!
An additional benefit to singing in a choir is that your choir will cover you if you make mistakes. This will be especially important when you’re just beginning to learn singing.
How Much Time Should I Practice Singing?
If you want to learn tenor singing well, you’re going to have to put in a lot of practice. However, there is such a thing as too much practice. Let’s take a look at the basics.
When you first begin to sing, likely, you will only need about 10 minutes each day of singing practice. Let’s be clear, though. That doesn’t mean singing in the shower. We’re talking about actual practice. You’ll be focusing on your breathing, on your technique, and on your pitch.
Singing in the shower is actually a great way to warm up your vocal cords. That warm steam is an added benefit, so feel free to start your practice when you’re freshly washed!
Now, ten minutes doesn’t sound like a lot of time. However, the first few times you try it, you’ll probably feel like you’ve been singing for eternity. Remember that your vocal cords are muscles. You can fatigue them just as you can fatigue your hamstrings or biceps. Take it slow at first.
As you progress, you’ll find that you have the stamina to continue your practice for longer and longer. Even for experienced singers, though, 30 minutes to an hour of practice is sufficient.
Tips and Tricks for New Tenors
Now we’ve covered the basics. You’ve learned what a tenor is, how to determine if you are one, and a bit about how to learn to sing better.
We’re going to close this guide with a few tips, tricks, and answers to frequently asked questions about how to sing tenor.
Please don’t forget to warm up before each practice or performance. We mentioned some warmup tips earlier in this guide, like warm tea and honey. Another of our favorite warmups uses a metronome.
A metronome is a musical tool that counts out beats per minute. For this warmup, you’ll set the dial on your metronome to 80 beats per minute (bpm) and start rhythmically breathing.
- Inhale for four counts, then exhale with a “hissssss” for four more counts.
- Inhale for four counts, then exhale for eight.
- Inhale for four counts, then exhale for 12.
- Inhale four, exhale 16.
This exercise is going to take some practice; if you can’t get all the way up to 12 or 16 at first, that’s fine. Use this warmup technique daily, and you’ll eventually build up to it.
Try a Piano
If you’re just learning how to find your pitch, you can use a piano, keyboard, or another musical instrument to help you out. If you’re “off-key,” your piano will let you know, and you can correct yourself.
We do recommend spending an equal amount of time singing acapella (without instruments). If you don’t, you can begin to use the instrument as a crutch. Remember: your voice is the instrument!
Why not record yourself while you practice singing? When you’re done, play it back and listen closely. If you’re feeling bold, have a friend play along to your recording with a musical instrument.
Use Your Speaking Voice
Do you remember giving presentations in school? Whether you did a few speeches in high school or took a public speaking class in college, those tricks you learned to project your voice can help with your singing.
You can learn how to sing tenor by using your regular speaking voice. Your instructor taught you how to speak from your diaphragm, project your voice, and use inflections in your speech.
Singing is obviously a bit different, but you’re going to use the same principles. If you take a trip down memory lane or even enroll in a public speaking class at your community college (if you haven’t taken one already), you can improve your singing.
Start with your normal speaking voice, then slowly increase and decrease your pitch. You’ll exercise your vocal cords and expand your range while you improve your breathing technique!
Set Realistic Goals
We touched on this previously, but you’re not going to be Stevie Wonder overnight. Remember your goals, whatever they may be. Do you want to perform in the community theater or sing your child a lullaby?
Your musical journey is unique to you, and your goal may not be hitting Steven Tyler’s high notes. Practice and study in a way that works for you and is attainable. Professional vocal training is great if you want to be a professional yourself.
If you have less lofty goals, take a more DIY approach to learn tenor. Or you can just join a local group. You’ll learn a lot from choir or chorus members who are a bit more experienced than you are.
Remember Your Vocal Health
Singing equals exercise. We’ve talked about your vocal cords as muscles. We’ve mentioned singing from your diaphragm, breathing exercises, and the need for hydration.
It goes beyond that, though. In the same way that you should care for your body to stay fit, you should also care for your body to improve your singing skills. Here are a few examples:
- Fatty foods may impact your ability to sing at your full range.
- Shortness of breath due to obesity or other illness will impact your singing.
- A humidifier in your bedroom can help keep your throat healthy.
- Consider allergens – would an air purifier be useful in your home?
- Caffeine can impact your mucus production – sounds gross, but you need mucus to sing!
- You may think you sing better after you’ve had a few drinks, but the opposite is true. Alcohol irritates your mucous membranes, too. In the long run, it can even increase your odds of being diagnosed with cancer.
If your goal is a healthy singing voice, you should strive for a healthy body!
Nobody’s going to tell you that you won’t be the next Pavarotti or Domingo. In fact, it’s unlikely that your buddies will tell you they don’t love your singing voice.
Have fun. You don’t need to perfect the art of singing to enjoy what you’re doing. Put on some Tony Bennett, Bon Jovi and rock out in your kitchen. This isn’t about perfection. It’s about finding your art.
If you want to learn how to sing tenor, there are dozens of ways to get started. This guide is meant to get you on the right track. Only you can find your own voice!
James is an ex-writer for Music Grotto who focused the majority of his writing on the musical skill development content on the publication. His 20+ year career as a singing and vocal coach provided insightful content for the website, and his continued thirst for development in guitar and piano playing helped create some excellent skill development content for the publication.