Canto a Tenore

In 2005 Canto a Tenore was proclaimed ‘Intangible Cultural Heritage of Humanity’ by UNESCO (watch the video on youtube).

Figure 1: Group of "A Tenore" singing during a performance

Canto a tenore in a nutshell

Canto a Tenore represents a form of polyphonic singing performed by a group of four men who perform separate and specialized parts. They are characterized not only by different vocal registers and timbres, but also by freedom of movement and by the role they assume during the interpretation of the chants.

Generally speaking, the tenor singing can be described as a solo singing accompanied “with chords” ("corfos") by a three part vocal chord ("su tenore"). The soloist, called "sa boghe", sings a Sardinian language poem (logudorese) while the other three cantors (su bassu, sa contra, sa mesu boghe) accompany the chant with nonsense syllables (either one or two) consisting of guttural sounds characterized by a peculiar vocal tone (watch the video).

In particular, the bassu and the contra use two different types of laryngeal constriction which yield characteristic vocal colours; as far as the bassu is concerned, it also produces the acoustic phenomenon of period doubling (e.g. a perceived octave jump below the original tone).

Having developed in the oral tradition, it doesn’t rely on rigid schemes, written scores or preset melodies. The text itself of the chant is not predetermined. The execution is built by melodic and harmonic formulas, well known among the cantors, which are combined following a canvas that can be varied by the soloist or by the choir as a whole (or also by the individual vocal parts). The musical sequence is therefore not preordained by rigid scores, and actually through it the cantors have the opportunity to express their feelings and aesthetic taste.

The teaching is usually done orally, by imitation.

Three forms of the canto can be identified:

- Boghe ‘e note (o boghe sèria): is the main one, characterized by the interchange of free-rhythm and measured sections;

- Boghe ‘e ballu: songs accompanying the dance;

- Mutos: it’s a form in which mutu, one typical poetic form of the Sardinian tradition, is set to music.

The a tenore song is practiced in various contexts, both informal and formal. During a performance, a tenore singers assume postures and make gestures that are partly functional to the music that they are performing and partly fruit of behaviour learnt culturally.

The absence of written documents makes it almost impossible to know its origins or reconstruct its history exactly, even though some musical traits and the centuries' old presence in the regional territory allow one to hypothesise a deep rooting in Sardinian tradition.

As to the research in the field, starting from the end of the Second World War, this practice has started being studied by the ethnomusicologists, who are especially interested in the social and musical study analysis. Nowadays, the number of research is growing with a focus on the phonetical aspects of this singing (e.g. Bravi, 2012).

Presently, one of the most known resources in the field of Canto a Tenore is the Encyclopedia on Sardinian Music, published by the Sardinian Union in 2012 (Pilosu, 2012).



Click to watch the video on Canto a Tenore made by UNESCO on youtube

click here to watch a video on the four voices in Canto a Tenore


Further materials


Physical aspects in Canto a Tenore: (1) posture and gestures and (2) the vocal track involvement

The emotional and social dimensions in singing Canto a Tenore

Teaching and learning Canto a Tenore: (1) knowledge and skills and (2) teaching and learning practice

Canto a Tenore tradition

Origins and present diffusion



Angius, V. (1838-1839). Su gli improvvisatori sardi. Biblioteca sarda (3-4-5-8).

Bandinu, O. (2006). Il canto a tenore. Dai nuraghi all'UNESCO. Siti (3), 16-21 [on line:].

Bailly, L., Heinrich, N., & Pelorson, X. (2010). Vocal fold and ventricular fold vibration in period-doubling phonation: Physiological description and aerodynamic modeling. J. Acoust. Soc. Amer., 127 (5), 3212-3222.

Bravi, P. (2012) Mbimbom. L'accompagnamento vocale nel canto a tenore. Ph.D. Thesis - University of Sassari.

D'Austria-Este, F. (1993 ed. or. 1812). Descrizione della Sardegna. (G. Bardanzellu, A cura di) Cagliari: Della Torre.

Deplano, A. (1994). Tenores. Cagliari: AM&D.

Lortat-Jacob, B. (1995). En accord. Polyphonies de Sardaigne: quatre voix qui n'en font qu'une. Cahiers de musique traditionnelles , VI, 69-86.

Madau, M. (1997 ed. or. 1787). Le armonie de' Sardi (Orig.: Cagliari, Stamperia Reale ed.). (C. Lavinio, A cura di) Nuoro: Ilisso.

Pilosu, S. (2012a) ‘Enciclopedia della musica sarda: Canto a Tenore’, in Casu F. and Lutzu M. (ed.), Enciclopedia della musica sarda, vol.1 e 2, Cagliari: L'Unione Sarda.

Pilosu, S. (2012b) ‘Canto a tenore and "visibility". Comparing two communities: Orgosolo and Bortigali, In Multipart music. A specific mode of musical thinking, expressive behaviour and sound. Udine.

Spano, G. (1840). Ortografia sarda nazionale. Cagliari: Reale Stamperia.


Other resources

Deplano, A. (A cura di). (2007). Su Tenore durgalesu de su 1929. CD + booklet . IX Comunità montana del Nuorese / Comune di Dorgali.

Sassu, P. (2010 ed. or. 1973). In D. Carpitella, P. Sassu, & L. Sole (A cura di), Musica sarda. Canti e danze popolari (or. Albatros VPA 8150/51/52 (booklet + 3 LP), Milano, pp. 41-51 ed., p. 69-95). Udine: Nota (Book + 2 CD, Macchiarella, Ignazio ed.).


Aknowledgments: this introduction to Canto a Tenore is based on materials provided by: Prof. Paolo Bravi, Marco Lutzu and Sebastiano Pilosu