Its precise interpretation can be somewhat contextual in practice, especially when combined with dynamic directions affecting loudness. In that case, it can mean either accent the note in question by holding it its full length (or longer, with slight rubato), and/or play the note slightly louder. In other words, the tenuto mark may alter the length of a note at the same time a dynamic mark adjusts its volume. Either way, the Tenuto marking indicates that a note should receive some degree of emphasis.
Tenuto is one of the earliest directions to appear in music notation. Notker of St. Gall (c. 840–912) discusses the use of the letter t in plainsong notation as meaning trahere vel tenere debere in one of his letters.
Tenuto is notated three ways:
- The word tenuto written above the passage to be played tenuto.
- The abbreviation ten. written above the note or passage to be played tenuto.
- A horizontal line, roughly the length of a notehead, placed immediately above or below the note to be played tenuto.
- Willi Apel, Harvard Dictionary of Music
- Tom Gerou and Linda Lusk, Essential Dictionary of Music Notation no (1996)
- Kurt Stone, "Music Notation in the Twentieth Century" (1980)
- David Fallows, "Tenuto." Grove Music Online ed. L. Macy. (Accessed 15 May 2006)