Musical Parts and Voices: How to Interpret Classic Guitar Music

lute tablature

Lute Tablature from the 1600s

Legend has it that Mauro Giuliani is fellow responsible for ordering classic guitar music onto the music staff.

Before, the trend was all tablature, or notes on the staff combined with a sort of tablature.

What Mauro did was to put the stems of the bass notes going down, and the melody note stems going up.

This made it enormously easier to see and understand what is actually going on in classic guitar music.

classic guitar music example

Example of classic guitar music (an excerpt of Leo Brouwer’s “Un Dia de Noviembre”)

Deciphering Classic Guitar Music

One of the best traits of classical guitar and classic guitar music is that you can play more than one line of music (also called “voices”) at a time.

Saxophones, violins (for the most part), voice (except for the Tuvans) and most other instruments can only play one note at a time.

The guitar (as well as the piano, marimba, harp, etc.) have the ability to play chords.  And with this ability comes the opportunity to play both a melody and a bass line at the same time.  We can go even further and play harmony and accompaniment notes as well, all simultaneously!

It all gets very complex very quickly.  So we needed a way to determine what’s what.

  • What is the bass?
  • What is the melody?
  • What should be loudest?
  • What should be quietest?
  • Does this all stay the same for the whole piece?
  • Or does it bounce back and forth?
  • What in the world is going on here?

Reading Between the Lines

So what Giuliani came up with, and we still do to this day, is to use note stem direction to signal the roles of the notes.

Once you know what to look for, you have the opportunity to create depth and interest in your music.  The only challenges left at this point are knowing the roles of each part (mental), and then actually demonstrating those roles to the listener (physical).

Also mentioned in this video:

Three Layers of Sound

Ideally, you have three layers of sound happening at all times.

Of course, sometimes the music only has one or two parts, so three isn’t possible.  But if it is, then the ideal is to have all three parts clearly defined in every moment.

Our primary goal is to communicate the emotional content of the music to our listener.  That is job number one, and everything we do (again, ideally) goes to support that one overarching goal.

The Roles of Each Part

Just as in a string quartet, a rock band, a choir, or an orchestra, each part has a specific role to play at any given time.

To use the rock band analogy, you have a lead singer, a drummer, a guitarist, and a bass player.

  • The drummer creates a solid rhythmic foundation for everyone to work within.  To mix metaphors, this is the canvas that the music is painted on.
  • The Diva (or front-man, if you like) is the lead singer (the melody part).  They should be the loudest, and you should be able to hear and understand what they are singing.  Everyone else is there to support the lead singer.
  • The bass player outlines the harmony (chord changes) and fills out the sound, making it sound full and rich.
  • The guitarist (aka the “rhythm player”) fills in the harmony with chords, provides “color”, and some counterpoint to the lead singer.

Of course the roles can change midstream.  The guitar, bass, or drums could take a solo.  Some parts could drop out.  We can tweak these roles in all sorts of ways.  But the underlying structure is there.

As long as everyone is in the right place, and fulfilling their role to the fullest, the music just works.

If any one member of the band get too ambitious and play too loudly when it isn’t their turn, things can go south quickly.

classical guitar melody

The Melody (play loudest, most present)

classical guitar bass line

The Bass Line (2nd loudest, behind the melody)

classic guitar accompaniment

The Interior Voices (quietest of all, in the background)

Day in nov all parts

All the parts

Creating the Perfect Balance

So, to recap the lesson from the band analogy from above:

  • Rhythm forms the foundation.
  • The melody is the loudest, “on top”.
  • The bass is second loudest, supporting the melody.
  • The harmony (interior voices) are quietest, and in the background.

Of course there are different levels of “rightness” that we can get in balancing all these elements.  For instance, you could be playing with great rhythm, but all the voices could still be to similar in volume (so that you can’t tell one part from another).

Likewise, you could have the opposite: great balance of the voices but wavering rhythm.

My take is this: If you have to choose, choose rhythm.  We all know good rhythm when we hear it, and also know when it’s off.  Start there and then add balance.

Train Your Ear to Hear the Different Parts of Music

The only way to truly play with good balance is to know what each part is doing.  If you don’t know, you can make errors and not even know it.

The way to train your ear is to practice the parts separately.  This can look different ways:

  • You could memorize each part separately.
  • You could just sightread each part once or twice.
  • Anywhere in between.

Ideally, you take each part and practice it up to the level where you know how each note will connect to the next.  You have your dynamics (swells and fades) all worked out, and you can say exactly how each note should be played.

Of course when you put three parts back together, some of this perfection will be lost.  But even if a little of it remains, the entire piece will be better for it.  And you will have become a better musician and listener in the process.

Try it on for size!

Action Challenge:

To really train your eye to see the different musical parts, you could also copy or print some classic guitar music and highlight the different voices (with a highlighter).  You could leave this by your bedside and do a few lines before bed, like a crossword or sudoku.  Soon you’ll be spotting the different lines automatically!

As a side-note, while you sleep your subconscious mind returns about 7 times more often to whatever you input the 45 minutes before sleep.  To learn most quickly, review whatever you are learning (ie: a new piece, identifying chords, sight-reading, the challenge above, or whatever) just before bed.  It’s a great way to wind down, and is certainly much healthier than watching the news.

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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