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Tenuto (Italian, past participle of tenere "to hold") is a direction used in musical notation. Arguably, it is one of the first directions to be used in music notation, as Notker of St. Gall (c.840 - 912) discusses the use of the letter t in plainsong notation as meaning trahere vel tenere debere in one of his letters.
Throughout history this direction has come to have two distinct meanings:
- To sustain the indicated note or notes to the full length
- To hold the indicated note, causing a brief interruption of meter
Baroque and Classical usage
The first meaning prevailed during the Baroque and Classical periods of Western music history. During these periods, unless otherwised marked, notes were played in a characteristically detached style. Thus, music marked tenuto (and otherwise unmarked) in a score from this era would be performed similarly to unmarked music in a more modern score.
Romantic through contemporary usage
As the Classical period made way for the Romantic, Western music lost its characteristic detached style and thus the need for tenuto markings as they were then defined. However, in addition to this change (and among many others), much music of this period included tempi that were more dynamic than music of preceding periods. Thus, tenuto was reincarnated with its second meaning. It was often used in opera of the time, most commonly to hold the upbeat back (and thus delaying the downbeat) in lyric lines.
In contemporary music, usage of tenuti with both meanings can be found, although those with the second meaning prevail.
Methods of notation
A tenuto can be notated in a musical score by one of three ways:
- The word tenuto written above the passage to be played tenuto
- The abbreviation ten. written above the note or passage to be played tenuto
- A horizontal line, roughly the width of a notehead, placed immediately above or below the note to be played tenuto (as in the image above)
- Modern musical symbols
- Fallows, David. "Tenuto." Grove Music Online ed. L. Macy. (Accessed 15 May 2006)