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Tenuto Uh-Oh

I have been on many rants about the abuse of tenuto in current notion practice. I see scores needlessly littered with them. They can be of use, but in my experience 98.254% of them I see out in the wild are redundant.

In my film orchestrating and arranging I rarely use them. I can go an entire 100-minute score and count the number of tenutos on my fingers. I have been trying to work out what they mean in all contexts, and they could mean so many different things depending on the musical context, who you ask, what position Jupiter is in, or any other number of factors, so that I think tenuto actually means nothing in most cases, and accomplishes nothing but making the player think and wonder what you mean in this context and then go on to ignore the marking or realize it is redundant!  

I recently asked a horn player at work what he does when he sees a tenuto and he said he has no idea until he hears what else is going on. That is kind of how they play with no tenuto, so it begs the question, what is the tenuto doing? All is not lost, though, this articulation does have some uses. I use it on soft dynamics in the strings when I need a proper start and not a mushy one. Of course it does mean things for string bowing and it makes a note that was going to be short for whatever reason become ‘full duration,’ that is the textbook meaning. It can be used in the middle of a phrase to get an emphasis on a note, but people have a habit of putting it in places that would naturally get that anyway, making it often redundant. But as for how it affects the articulation of a note, the attack, it is more often than not going to be exactly the same as it would with nothing. One place where it is common is on repeated notes under a slur in a woodwind or brass part to indicated legato tonguing. I hate to break it to everyone, but they do the same thing with no tenuto. Unless you have lost their trust on what your slurs mean, they must articulate repeated notes and with nothing, say, to accent them or make them short they will – and I know this is hard to believe – legato tongue them.

Even when I have asked a player and they say it will affect the attack, when I have secretly tested similar phrases with and without a tenuto, it is not different in most contexts. When I have questioned some orchestrators as to why every second note has a redundant tenuto on it they have said that they were told or heard that every note needs an articulation or indication of some sort. I could not disagree more. It is this thinking that has led to its overuse and thus lack of actual effect!

Here is a little example I put together based on something I recently saw posted to facebook. This is an example of some redundant tenutos. As it came from quite an experienced person, I changed it enough to make it not recognizable, but the point will be the same.

Let’s go instrument by instrument.

Flute – A tenuto would imply to play full duration. The slur over the tenutos would be saying to legato tongue the notes. What are they going to do if you just left it naked? It is a flute, they need to articulate the notes, it is pp and with no slur they would legato tongue them as there is no information telling them to do anything else. They would never accent them. If it was just a slur, that would be different, but having having both of these they kind of cancel each other out!

Harp – The tenuto and slur mean nothing. A harp will play the same with this or nothing: they pluck the string softly. There is nothing else they can physically do. The notes will also ring, which is just how harps play; you have to tell them NOT to ring.

Celeste – It is pp, not much room for interpretation. I guess the slur is saying to play legato, connect the notes. But having no slur and saying nothing would get that. Absent any other information, the default is to play the notes full duration and connected. You have to tell people to detach notes, especially at pianissimo. For louder dynamics, one could argue a player might detach in order to get a more obvious attack on the next note. That happens with all instruments.

Violins – This is tenuto that should be here. As all of the other instruments have to play right on beat one since their physics don’t allow them fade or ease it in, you want the violins to do that as well, starting right on with the rest of the ensemble. Without a tenuto, I guarantee on the first take and then possibly forever after the strings will start on an up bow and slightly fade it in, since that is their default on a single long note like this. Yay, one out of thirteen tenutos is doing something.

I know some people will say they have some physiological effect or affect the attack, but in this example I can tell you they won’t. There is only one way to play this. I think there are a few things at play here that explain why we live in world were scores are dripping in tenutos like my vegemite toast drips butter:

  • There is just a school of thought out there that says that each note needs an instruction/articulation. If the note is long, a tenuto is the logical thing to add.
  • It will affect the attack (it can, but not in these example, at least twelve of them)
  • If you are being paid as an orchestrator you might feel the need to justify your money and make the page look full, pretty, and like you have put time and effort into it. Leaving things naked can look like you just did not bother.
  • They don’t know or trust what happens with nothing.
  • People are overthinking it.

Just think before you tenuto and never drink and tenuto.