Balance Ratios: A Way to Quantify Musical Expression and Phrasing

We would all like to play classical guitar with beautiful phrasing and expression. It would be wonderful if every tune came out flowing and rich, with emotion and power.

But often, the music comes out muddled. Instead of clear and clean, it sounds chunky and disorganized. This is true even if we get all the notes.

One of the reasons is what we call “balance”.

What is Musical Balance in Classical Guitar Music?

Musical balance is the volume-relationship of one note or line of music to another.

In classical guitar music, we usually have multiple lines of music happening at the same time. These are often the melody, the bass, and some accompaniment. This type of writing is what makes the classical guitar sound so full and complex.

On guitar, we are both the conductor and the orchestra. We direct the action, and we make the sounds.

In a perfect scenario, a listener would know exactly what notes were the melody. They would be able to hear the bass notes as separate from the accompaniment. And it would all just “make sense” to them (even if they didn’t understand why).

We primarily use volume to separate the different parts (or “voices”) of the music. When we make some notes loud while others are less so, it’s called “balance”.

The Big Question: How Much?

Here’s the problem: we often think we’re bringing out the melody, but in reality, we’re not. We can record ourselves playing to test this. We may find that what we thought was exaggerated and distinct is in fact hardly noticeable.

So the question is: How much louder should the melody be? How much louder should the bass be than the accompaniment? Just how much difference are we looking for?

For this, we have to make a decision. We must decide exactly how much louder one voice is than another, then play it that way.

To help us remember, we can use simple ratios.

Mental Tool for Balance: Ratios

Instead of hoping to play the melody louder, we can play it X times louder than the other voices. And we can state this as a ratio, such as 2:1 or 3:1.

We can play the melody twice as loud as the bass. We can play it three times as loud. Whatever the situation calls for, we can decide the ratio and play it that way.

Once we choose a ratio, we need only remember it. Knowing the desired balance for any two notes helps us play it musically every time. We’re less likely to go on “auto-pilot” and just play monotone notes.

Tip: Make Decisions (and Play Them)

When we make musical decisions, our technique gets better. To play one voice four times as loud as another takes control and attention. This work leads to more control and higher-quality attention.

Guitar practice is more fun and more effective when we work on specific challenges. Balance ratios give us these specific challenges. They push us to play more expressively. They give us direct goals upon which to focus.

The more questions we ask and decisions we make, the better musicians we become.

Allen Mathews

Hi, I’m Allen Mathews. 

I started as a folk guitarist, then fell in love with classical guitar in my 20’s. Despite a lot of practice and schooling, I still couldn’t get my music to flow well. I struggled with excess tension. My music sounded forced. And my hands and body were often sore. I got frustrated, and couldn’t see the way forward. Then, over the next decade, I studied with two other stellar teachers – one focused on the technical movements, and one on the musical (he was a concert pianist). In time, I came to discover a new set of formulas and movements. These brought new life and vitality to my practice. Now I help guitarists find more comfort and flow in their music, so they play more beautifully.
Click here for a sample formula.

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