Tenuto and Portato

The tenuto mark is by far the most confusing symbol in all of musical notation.  I’ve noticed that transfer students rarely even know what it is called, much less know how to interpret it.  I have observed confusion and misinterpretation about the mark among music teachers.   I certainly can’t blame them!  This article will clarify the various meanings of the tenuto mark (and go over the portato while we’re at it).

Let’s start our investigation by seeing what my two pocket dictionaries say (emphasis added):

Tenuto.  “Held”; means (a) generally, that a tone so marked is to be sustained for its full time-value; (b) occasionally, legato…Forte tenuto (f ten.), forte throughout… Tenuto-mark, a short stroke over a note. (Pronouncing Pocket-Manual of Musical Terms.  G. Schirmer, New York, Dr. Theodore Baker, ed., 1947.)

Tenuto.  To hold a note for its full value, indicated by a line over or under a note.  Abbreviated ten. (Essential Dictionary of Music, 2nd edition. Alfred Publishing Company, Inc., Los Angeles, Lindsey Harnsberger, ed., 1997.)

Simple enough?  If that were truly what the tenuto meant, it would be.  Unfortunately, the tenuto almost never behaves that way!  To make matters worse, the tenuto has, as I count them, four different meanings, or five if we count the portato!  But don’t feel overwhelmed.  We will cover these meanings quickly with clear examples and audio clips to support most of the examples.

The most common usages of the tenuto are, by far, to hold a note beyond its full value and to give a note mild dynamic emphasis.  I only give both of these definitions at once because our first example actually contains both examples.  And what other composer would this be than the great King of Overediting Himself, Sergei Rachmaninov.  I say this in great respect – his music is absolutely fantastic.  It’s just that Rachmaninov is also the only composer I know of who can sometimes put more dynamic/articulation marks in a measure than there are notes.

Play the audio now and observe what Evgeny Kissin does with all the yellow-highlighted tenuto marks.

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Rachmaninov – Piano Concerto No. 3, mvt. 1, last cadenza (Evgeny Kissin, piano)

The first tenuto marks (second measure) indicate mild dynamic accentuation.  Heavier dynamic accentuation would be indicated with an actual accent mark, heavy accent mark, or sforzando.  I like to think of the “dynamic tenuto” as a way of notating, “Make sure these notes sing out.”  Other heavier accent symbols don’t necessarily sing and can be more pecussive in nature.

The rest of the tenuto marks indicate holding notes longer than their full length.  The word “ten.” acts as a more intense stretching of time than if simple tenuto lines were written.  The five tenuto marks in a row in the last line are Rachmaninov’s way of telling the performer not to take off suddenly and give each of those beginning notes additional importance of length.  It’s a way of saying, “Let each of these notes have individuality before the actual passagework begins.”

Another common usage of the tenuto is to mean non-legato/detached.  Yes, that’s right, one “detached” tenuto can tell us to do almost the opposite of what another “more than full value” tenuto mark tells us to do.  The only way we can tell the difference is by using context.  The detached tenuto occurs in pieces that are typically faster and more articulated than the lush Rachmaninov above.  Here is an example of “detached” tenuto marks (Tcherepnin’s Bagatelle, Op. 5 No. 1):

The green highlighted tenuto marks serve as our context clues that confirm detachment for all tenuto marks.  Let’s use process of elimination to figure out what the green tenutos (and therefore the yellow tenutos as well) mean:

  1. Mild dynamic accent?  These tenuto marks are already paired with normal accent marks, so we can be pretty sure the tenuto marks here are not dynamic in nature.
  2. Hold longer than full value?  In the context of such a bold, militaristic march, this simply wouldn’t make any musical sense.  It would sound like the performer is having a hard time keeping a steady tempo.  Not to say rubato can’t be used in this piece at all – some rubato could be nice in certain transitional spots in this piece, but the second line of music is not one of them.
  3. Hold for exactly full value?  Looking at the second page of this music (right) when the main theme returns, one notices it is notated with slurs (green).  Slurs indicate legato, and true legato is synonymous with “giving notes their full value”.  In other words, if Tcherepnin wanted the tenuto notes in the beginning to be given exactly their full value, it would have been much easier to put all of them underneath a slur.

This leaves us no other choice but to conclude that Tcherepnin is using the tenuto in the first example to mean almost legato, while the tenuto marks in the second example are mild accents since they are paired up with slurs and pedal (which already takes care of articulation).

We’ve now seen examples of tenuto that involve all definitions except what is found in the music dictionary.  Finding a tenuto example that literally tells the performer to hold the note for “exactly its full value” was difficult!  I had to resort to a heavily-edited Haydn sonata (edited and fingered by Ludwig Klee and Dr. Sigmund Lebert).  The performer in the audio recording does not agree with the editor on the first two (yellow) tenutos, so you won’t hear those notes held.  But you’ll hear the green one held:

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Haydn – Sonata Hob. XVI:13 in E (Partita/Divertimento) – mvt. 3 (Piazzini, piano)

And now for the portato.  Below is an excerpt from a late beginner level piece called “Scherzino” by Maykapar.  Highlighted in yellow are portatos, which is what you call tenuto and staccato found on the same note.  Think of a portato as a staccato with a little length to it, typically getting around 50% of its value.  This comes across as a “long” or “sticky” staccato.

In this example, we also get another example of the “full length” or perhaps “almost full length” tenuto (in green).  Regardless of exact length, one can be sure that Maykapar didn’t want the green tenuto chord to be played with as much detachment as the portato chords leading up to it, since it makes the phrase sound “clipped” at the end.

Portato is sometimes called mezzo-staccato, and it can also be indicated with slurs over staccato marks.  However, slurs over staccatos does not always imply portato articulation:  sometimes a slur mark is not an articulation mark at all, but simply a structural indication of note groupings which might affect dynamic shaping and rubato instead of articulation.  In other words, composers are allowed to group even very staccato notes (marked with pointy “staccatissimo” signs) under a slur to indicate where phrases begin and end.

After all this terrible tenuto madness, there is one item of good news.  Music dictionaries are finally starting to catch on to the fact that “full length tenutos” are hardly ever used.  As reported by the Virginia Tech Multimedia Music Dictionary:

Tenuto – A directive to perform a certain note or chord of a composition in a sustained manner for longer than its full duration.

This definition doesn’t cover all possibilities, but at least it focuses on one of the most common tenuto usages rather than the least common!  Even so, the fact remains that one can only determine what a tenuto really refers to by looking at context clues, which include the style/era of the music, the composer, the tempo/mood marking, and other dynamic/articulative marks in the measure.  Even with this knowledge, inexperienced pianists will usually still need the guidance of their teachers to make sure their tenutos are being interpreted correctly.  But knowing the realm of possibility is a great start!

(c) 2010 Cerebroom

About Chad

Chad is a pianist, composer, piano teacher and blogger with a Masters Degree in Piano Performance. He received the 2005 Nevada Arts Council Fellowship Grant for the composing and performing on his Ostinato CD.
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12 responses to Tenuto and Portato

  1. Jim Traxler

    Thank you! Although a music major (long ago), I have never seen a good definition of tenuto, and as you point out, “holding full value” makes no sense in the way that the mark is usually, and inconsistently, interpreted. I have been teaching the basics of music to an eager group of seniors, and I could demonstrate a tenuto interpretation, but could not come up with a cogent definition. You have done that for me! Thank you!

  2. Brian Johnson

    Thanks so much for this helpful article. I am learning the first movement of the Scriabin Piano Concerto, and I have been somewhat confused about what Scriabin is trying to portray by the tenutos in the opening solo. Based on your explanation, I’ve concluded that he is asking the performer to make sure those notes sing out. In a biography of Scriabin I ran across recently, Scriabin explained that the three-note descending motif is key to understanding the concerto, and interestingly, it is that motif that is given the tenutos in the opening solo. Fascinating. Thanks again.

    • You’re welcome! The singing tenuto notation is very common among the romantic and late romantic (pre-contemporary) composers. And often there can be a lot of overlap between “more than full value” tenutos and “singing” tenutos, because holding for more than the full value can produce the illusion of singing out more (agogic accent). I’m not saying this agogic accentuation is appropriate for your particular passage – just speaking in general.

  3. Anonymous

    Thank you very much. I have been so confused with trying to explain tenuto to young children because I felt that saying hold full value wasn’t really enough for them to fully understand it. Your article really helped me get a sense of it in different contexts. Thank you very much.

  4. Thanks! You’re right – tenuto is the most confusing symbol in the toolkit ๐Ÿ™‚

  5. Demac

    Hey, I know it’s an old post, but I’ve just bumped into it. :). In orchestral music I often see “tenuto” being interpreted similar to how it is defined in your pocket dictionary: “sustained for its full time-value”, which means the note shouldn’t decay in dynamic throughout it’s duration. Wouldn’t make sense on piano, but it’s quite suitable for brass section, strings, woodwinds or vocals, on which a slight decay along the duration of a note is sort of standard for non legato notes. Any thoughts?

    And thanks for the nice post.

    • Demac, thank you so much for the added information. Being the tunnel-visioned pianist that I am, I have zero experience interpreting marks like this in an orchestral context. Your words make perfect sense, and this would perhaps explain why music dictionaries have kept the classic definition intact. I intend to update the blog post eventually with this information, but until then, your comment will suffice!

  6. Mike

    Thanks Chad, nice article. Could you elaborate on the tenuto symbol in violin music? E.g., in Suzuki bk 2, the first piece “Chorus from ‘Judaus Maccabaeus'”, measure 3. A C4 followed by a B4, with a slur mark and tenuto signs between the slur and the note heads. With violin, as you know, no-slur implies reversing the bow direction, whereas a slur entails keeping the bow moving in the same direction. I think that the tenuto use above means that you should stop the bow momentarily then continue moving it in the same direction. This counteracts the slur somewhat. Sigh.

  7. Barry M. Wilkins

    Great article Chad. Thank you! You have straightened out more than a few points for me here in Penrith, N.S.W. I have tried to keep it as simple as possible for my students by using “picture language” especially for the Portato (mezzo-staccato). One of the replies spoke of “sticky” fingers…and that is one of the phrases that I use: “Sticky fingers honey on the keys” getting them to visualise or imagine that some of the sound (honey) has remained with the key pressed whilst some has gone with the finger/s being lifted off the surface. “Carry the sound” (on the piano??!!) or “lift up the sound” are a couple of other “picture builders” which I use with good success. Definitions can be a “cold beast” sometimes, and we need to remind ourselves that we are in the business of moving people emotionally. Thank you once again Chad. p.s. Here in Australia, Queenslanders have a word for what we would call a suitcase: PORT ๐Ÿ™‚

    • Thanks, and agreed! The scope of this article is just about clarifying meanings. Certainly one could also go into language used to teach it, physical techniques used in performance, history of the notation, etc.

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