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Contratenor vs. Countertenor: What's the Difference?

By Harlon Moss & Janet White || Updated on May 23, 2024
A "contratenor" is a historical term referring to a vocal part in polyphonic music, while a "countertenor" is a modern male singer who uses falsetto or a high voice range equivalent to the female alto or mezzo-soprano.

Key Differences

"Contratenor" is a term from medieval and Renaissance music, referring to one of the vocal lines in polyphonic compositions. This part typically had a range between the tenor and the bass, acting as a counterpoint to the primary melody. "Countertenor," on the other hand, describes a male singer with a vocal range that extends into the alto or mezzo-soprano range, typically achieved through the use of falsetto.
Contratenors were essential in early polyphonic compositions, providing harmonic and melodic support to the tenor line. Countertenors have gained popularity in modern times, particularly in the performance of early music, opera, and choral works.
While the contratenor was a specific vocal part within a piece of music, the countertenor is a type of singer. Contratenors would have been part of an ensemble, contributing to the overall polyphonic structure, whereas countertenors often perform as soloists or as part of a vocal ensemble, showcasing their distinct range and timbre.
The terms reflect different historical periods and contexts within music. The contratenor belongs to the era of early polyphony, while the countertenor is associated with both historical performance practice and contemporary classical music.

Comparison Chart


A historical vocal part in polyphonic music
A modern male singer with an alto or mezzo-soprano range

Usage Context

Medieval and Renaissance polyphonic compositions
Baroque and contemporary classical music


Provided harmonic and melodic support
Performs roles written for higher voices

Vocal Range

Between tenor and bass
Equivalent to female alto or mezzo-soprano

Historical Period

Early polyphony
Modern and Baroque music

Contratenor and Countertenor Definitions


Often had a range between tenor and bass.
The composer assigned the contratenor part to fill the harmonic gap.


A male singer with a vocal range equivalent to alto or mezzo-soprano.
The countertenor captivated the audience with his pure, high notes.


A vocal part in medieval and Renaissance polyphonic music.
The contratenor added richness to the polyphonic texture of the madrigal.


Performs roles originally written for castrati.
The countertenor took on the challenging role, originally composed for a castrato.


Less commonly used in contemporary music.
Modern compositions rarely include a specific contratenor part.


Common in both solo and choral performances.
The countertenor's voice blended beautifully with the other altos in the choir.


A counter-melody to the tenor line.
In the motet, the contratenor weaved a complex counterpoint to the tenor.


Often uses falsetto to achieve a higher range.
The countertenor's use of falsetto allowed him to perform soprano arias.


Integral to early choral compositions.
The choir's contratenor voices were crucial in achieving the desired polyphony.


Prominent in Baroque music and opera.
He is a renowned countertenor, specializing in Handel's operas.


(music) countertenor


An adult male voice with a range above that of tenor.


Counter tenor; contralto.


A singer having a voice within this range.


Adult male singer who uses head tone or falsetto to sing far higher than the typical male vocal range


Male singing voice far higher than the typical male vocal range


(Older) a part or section performing a countermelody against the tenor or main part


A male singer with a voice above that of a tenor


The highest adult male singing voice


Of or being the highest male voice; having a range above that of tenor


How does a contratenor differ from a countertenor?

A contratenor refers to a specific vocal part in early music, while a countertenor is a type of singer with a high vocal range.

What is a contratenor?

A contratenor is a historical vocal part in polyphonic music from the medieval and Renaissance periods.

Are contratenors and countertenors the same in vocal technique?

No, contratenor refers to a part, while countertenor refers to a vocal technique and range used by male singers.

What roles do countertenors typically perform?

Countertenors often perform roles originally written for castrati or female altos in Baroque and contemporary operas.

Do countertenors use falsetto?

Yes, countertenors often use falsetto to achieve their high vocal range.

Is the term contratenor still used today?

The term is rarely used in contemporary music but is relevant in historical contexts.

What is an example of a famous countertenor?

Andreas Scholl is a well-known countertenor specializing in Baroque music.

Is countertenor a common voice type in modern choirs?

Countertenors are less common but are valued for their unique range and timbre.

What is a countertenor?

A countertenor is a modern male singer with a vocal range equivalent to alto or mezzo-soprano.

What is the vocal range of a countertenor?

The vocal range of a countertenor typically spans from G3 to D5, similar to a female alto.

Can a countertenor sing contratenor parts?

Yes, a countertenor can sing parts written for contratenor, especially in early music.

What is the historical significance of contratenors?

Contratenors played a crucial role in the development of Western polyphony during the medieval and Renaissance periods.

Why are countertenors important in Baroque music?

They perform roles that were originally written for castrati, maintaining historical performance practices.

What distinguishes a countertenor's voice from other male voices?

A countertenor's voice is distinguished by its ability to reach high notes typically sung by female altos or mezzo-sopranos.

Can countertenors sing bass parts?

No, countertenors specialize in high vocal ranges and typically do not sing bass parts.

What kind of music did contratenors typically perform?

Contratenors performed in polyphonic church music, madrigals, and early choral works.

Can female singers be considered countertenors?

No, countertenor specifically refers to male singers.

How do contratenors contribute to polyphonic texture?

Contratenors provide harmonic and melodic counterpoints, enriching the overall musical texture.

What is the difference in the roles of contratenors and tenors in polyphony?

Contratenors typically sing parts that counter or complement the tenor line, often in a higher or overlapping range.

Are countertenors used in contemporary music?

Yes, countertenors are featured in both contemporary classical compositions and modern opera.
About Author
Written by
Harlon Moss
Harlon is a seasoned quality moderator and accomplished content writer for Difference Wiki. An alumnus of the prestigious University of California, he earned his degree in Computer Science. Leveraging his academic background, Harlon brings a meticulous and informed perspective to his work, ensuring content accuracy and excellence.
Co-written by
Janet White
Janet White has been an esteemed writer and blogger for Difference Wiki. Holding a Master's degree in Science and Medical Journalism from the prestigious Boston University, she has consistently demonstrated her expertise and passion for her field. When she's not immersed in her work, Janet relishes her time exercising, delving into a good book, and cherishing moments with friends and family.

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