What is Tessitura?

Learning About Vocal Range

Image courtesy of ClubTransatlântico via flickr cc license

The English translation of the Italian word “tessitura” is texture. In music, the term deals with texture of the voice or less often an instrument in a particular musical range. You may hear references to a high tessitura, but middle and low tessituras also exist. The definition of tessitura also changes depending on what it refers to: a singer or a musical song. Despite what you may think, range is not the only factor in determining tessitura.

Tessitura is affected by timbre, frequency of sung notes, and the contour of the melody.

Tessitura of a Singer

The part of a singer’s voice sounding the most beautiful or the range most comfortable for any given singer is their tessitura. Tessitura is different than the usable range of a singer, which is the part of the voice presentable in performances.  A soprano may sing low notes loud enough to be heard, but her timbre may be less interesting than when she sings in her higher register. Since most songs require a large range, singers do not only sing in their tessitura range.

Tessitura of a Musical Song

Tessitura is the range of notes a song requires the most. Some websites selling sheet music will list the overall range of a song, but few will note their tessitura. For instance, the range of “I Go On,” From Mass by Leonard Bernstein has a range that seems less demanding for high sopranos: C4-A5.

A5 is two notes below high C. Many songs require only one or two instances of the highest note, but in this song the tessitura is high. The majority of the notes in the chorus are between D5 and G5. For many sopranos that makes it impossible to sing. “Bring Him Home,” from Les Misérables is another example of a song with a high tessitura, which is why you hear many tenors vocally tire halfway through the song.

How Contour of Melody Relates to Tessitura

The way a high note or low note is approached also affects the tessitura of a song. A common approach to high notes is in an arpeggio style. When Maria in West Side Story sings her last high note in her duet with Tony “Tonight,” she sings, “endless night,” in a triad fashion and then skips from sol to do for the highest pitch. When listening to Maria in the movie musical version of The Sound of Music, you may observe the same arpeggio approach to high notes when Julie Andrews ends her song “I Have Confidence.” She may not end on a high note for “The Lonely Goatherd,” in the puppet scene, but also skips up and through the highest notes using arpeggios. Skips make high notes and really low notes easier. In contrast, approaching a high or low note in a step-wise fashion is more difficult. It requires a longer period of time in the higher or lower range raising or lowering the overall tessitura.

When is Tessitura Used?

Most often tessitura is used to refer to songs with high or low tessituras in classical singing. Someone may also refer to a tenor or soprano with a high tessitura or a bass or alto with a low one. Very high and low tessituras are the rarest and therefore the most sought after when needed.

Many singers have particularly beautiful voices in the middle range, but are often under recognized in the classical world so a middle tessitura is not referred to. Popular and jazz singers tend to sing well in the middle of their voice as well, but the term tessitura is not commonly used outside of classical music.