The Sardinian Tenores

The Tenores style of singing is the proof of the existence of polyphony in ancient age
on the island of Sardinia. But it is difficult to establish precisely the
origins of  tenores singing because of the entangled history of Sardinia, full of
domination by other civilizations, such as the as the Phoenicians, Carthaginians, Romans, Arabs and

Some historians, in relation to the archaeological discoveries (a little bronze
statuette representing a man singing ), guess the story of Tenores begins
3,000 years ago.
The traditional singing is related to shepherd life, to their loneliness, only
in touch with nature.Often, the Tenores singing is accompanied by the evocative traditional
dances and costumes. The a tenore song is a “polyvocal” form in four parts, typical of
the middle-north of Sardinia, where each part has to be sung by one single male
singer (cantore). As each part can not absolutely be doubled, the group of
tenores has to be composed of four people.

The formal structure of the a tenore song can be essentially defined as
a canto
ad accordo
, that is a melodic line, performed by a soloist, sa ‘oghe (the
voice), which is accompanied by chords made by the other three cantori
(singers). Sa oghe, the leader of the group, both sing the text and leads the
singing, choosing the tone, the tempo, the speed, the length, and the tonal
shifting. The other parts are usually called su bassu, sa contra and
sa mesu

Su bassu, the lowest pitched voice, normally sings one single note
repeating it continuously an octave below the basic note of the melody of sa
, thus determining the fundamental of the chord. Its role is fundamental to
give solidity to the harmonic and rhythmical structure.

Sa contra works in close
collaboration with su bassu, performing the some rhythmical structure tuned a
fifth above the latter. Bassu and contra together form the rhythmical base for
the other two voices.

Sa mesu oghe, relatively freer than the previous voices,
is higher than sa oghe and can color and ornate the singing, and complete the
harmonic structure, strictly formed by major chords. The three parts which
accompany sa oghe, perform a rhythmical and harmonic base, pronouncing non-sense
syllables (syllables without meaning) which vary from area to area (bim-bò,
bim-bam-bò, etc.).

The ethnomusicologist Pietro Sassu has been the first to
consider the group (gruppo) which sings a tenore not as a choir but as an
“integration among four soloists” [Sassu 1982], because, despite their often
sought homogeneity and fusion, each element approaches his part in a personal
way, and with a certain freedom of variation: the purpose is the fusion of the
voices, not the anonymous overlapping of sounds.

To define the group of the four
singers, of their way of singing, the term tenore (in the singular form to
indicate the four cantori) or tenores (the components) is certainly the most
wide-spread, even if in some villages they use terms like su cuntrattu,
or su cuncordu. According to the villages, then, these terms sometimes
indicate the group of the four singers, sometimes only the choir of the three
elements who accompany the soloist.

One of the peculiarities which makes the a tenore song a characteristic and well known genre is the particular timber of
bassu and contra. These two parts use, in fact, a guttural timbre, obtained
employing the resonance of the oral cavity and the nasal one, in a particular
way. The origins of the a tenore song is one of the must difficult and uncertain
subject among the experts. One thesis, perhaps the most poetic, but not
the most scientific one, claims that the a tenore song originated a long time
ago among the Sardinian shepherds in the lonely countryside; su bassu may
reproduce, by imitation, the lowing of the ox, sa contra, the bleating of the
sheep, and sa mesu oghe the sound of the wind. Different indications are given
by the ethnomusicologist Ignazio Macchiarella who, studying the interweaving of
written tradition with the oral one, as far as the canto ad accordo or falsobordone (basically a chordal structure corresponding to that of
a tenore
song) is concerned, points out how this polyvocal form cannot be traced back
before the 15th century [Macchiarella 1995].

Up to now studies don’t go further.
No one knows when the a tenore song originated, but it’s very probable that at
the end of the year 400, it was already present.

You can read about soome of the current performers of tenores music:

Tenore “S. Gavino” Oniferi


Tenores di Bitti “Mialinu Pira”

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[This article is based on a text provided courtesy of 
Tenores di Bitti. Photo 1, Tenores di Bitti. Photo 2, Tenore San Gavino