The Total Classical Guitar Method (tm)

Classical Guitar Lessons completed so far: Introduction,1,2,3,4,5,6,7,8,9,
Also completed: Acoustics of Music, Pythagorean System of Intonation

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Book 1 -- Lesson 6-- The Elements of Music

The Four Basic Elements of Music  ---

In this lesson I'll explain the four basic elements of music: Pitch, Rhythm, Dynamics, and Timbre. In later lessons I'll explain and demonstrate how these basic elements interact to allow infinite possibilities to exist for musical expression. Music always contains its four basic elements, and it's important to be conscious of, and to control all four elements of music AT ALL TIMES during your playing. Music notation has evolved over the years to include a very rich repertoire of symbols. These various symbols allow a composer to indicate many aspects - BUT NOT ALL - of each element of music. As I introduce each basic element, I will discuss its more common notational elements. This lesson should NOT to be interpreted as an attempt to be a complete dictionary of musical notation. My principal source of information on this subject on other all material presented in these lessons is the "Harvard Dictionary of Music" Second Edition, by Willi Apel, published by The Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, Cambridge, Massachusetts.

This lesson will not deal with more advanced aspects of music, such as scales, which are pre-defined ordered groups of pitches which are played sequentially; chords, which are two or more notes played simultaneously; tonality and harmony, which uses the natural psychological tensions and resolutions created by various pitches to drive the music in the direction intended by the composer, or voices, which are independent melody lines within a piece of music that require a separate focus on each of the four basic elements. Those topics will wait until later lessons, after you have a working knowledge of the basic four musical elements.


Lesson 5 discussed pitch and its physical basis in the frequency of vibration of some material object. This lesson will introduce the elements of notating pitch in printed music. These elements include: the staff; the clefs, including the subscript; Key Signature; the "note", including sharp, flat, and natural signs (accidentals); the Glissando and Portamento; and Harmonics.

The music we will be discussing is composed of pitches which are discrete in nature. This is in contrast to music such as that which is composed for a synthesizer which can produce arbitrary pitches which may have no relationship to our 12 tone even-tempered scales.

This image includes a segment of a staff, a G-clef, a sharp symbol to signify the key signature of 'g' major, a subscript "8" octave notation, and the symbol for "common time"

This image includes a segment of a staff, a G-clef, a single flat sign to signify the key signature of 'f' major, a "dotted" half note which makes the note have a duration of 3 quarter notes, and the use one ledger line to place the note one line below the staff.

The Staff

A notation of pitch has been developed which uses a set of parallel horizontal lines and spaces on which "notes" are drawn to represent distinct pitches. A grouping of five lines with the four spaces between each line is referred to as a "staff". From any starting pitch, notes increase by one letter name for each progressively higher space or line on the staff, and decrease by one letter name for each progressively lower line or space. "Ledger lines" are small line segments which are used to place notes above or below a staff to indicate pitches higher or lower than can be represented on the staff itself.

The Clef

The clef is a symbol that is placed at the left edge of each staff which defines a reference pitch from which all other notes on that staff are computed. There are three types of clefs, the G-clef, the F-clef, and C-clef. Most modern publications use only the G-clef and the F-clef with the older C-clef being replaced by the use of a G-clef with an "subscript 8" to indicate that pitches on the staff are to be played an octave lower than those with the usual G-clef.

The G-clef resembles a large number eight with each circle in the 8 shaped as a vertically oriented oval, the bottom oval being about 3 or 4 times larger than the upper oval. The lower oval is drawn as an open loop where the loop encircles the second line from the bottom of the staff. That line is defined as g' ("g-one-line" is the first g above middle-c on the piano). The G-clef is the clef which is used in Classical Guitar music. Because the actual pitch of the guitar is an octave lower than that which is indicated by the standard G-clef, the correct method for notating Classical Guitar music is to place a small numeral 8 below the G-clef symbol. That small 8 tells the reader that the actual pitches which follow are to sound an octave lower than indicated. Unfortunately, it is very uncommon to see the 8 subscript in Classical Guitar music; the reader is expected to know that the pitches are an octave lower than written.

I HAD a wonderful guitar that had developed a small crack in the back of the instrument. Since the repair of that part of the guitar is pretty straightforward, I chose to bring the instrument to a violin repair person because there were no guitar repair shops in my town. When I came to pick up the instrument, there was a huge crack in the top of the guitar. I was told that the instrument had "just cracked as I tried to tune it"... It was about a year later when it dawned on me that the violin repair person probably didn't know that the guitar should sound an octave lower than its music would indicate....Ouch! As I said, I HAD a wonderful guitar...

The F-clef, often called the "Bass clef", resembles a backward C with a full colon close to the outside right edge of the symbol. The full colon of the F-clef straddles the second line from the top of the staff and defines the placement of the pitch f (f below middle c on the piano).

The C-clef resembles the numeral 3 with a heavy vertical line drawn close to the left edge and is used to define the pitch c' (c-one-line, or middle c on the piano). This clef can be placed in either of two positions on the staff. The C-clef is placed on the staff so that the intersection of the top and bottom curves in the symbol (essentially the "center" of the 3) touches either the middle line of the staff (alto or viola clef), or the second line from the top of the staff (tenor clef). Historically, this clef was used as a "moveable clef" to reduce the need for "ledger lines", but modern publishers are tending to avoid its use altogether and to opt instead to use the aforementioned subscript 8.

Key Signature

A key signature is a method whereby all of the pitches within a line of music can be assigned a set of "sharps" or "flats" in order to reduce the number of individual sharp or flat symbols that would otherwise be required. Later lessons will deal with scales and the theory behind the creation of key signatures, but suffice to say here that the key signature has a big effect on the pitch of notes placed on the staff. Classical music is notated with the key signature placed at the start of each staff for every line of music.

The Notes

A "note" is the smallest unit of music that can be represented in our system of notation. In modern music notation, a note is drawn on a staff as a circular mark with a diameter that is approximately equal to the distance between the lines of the staff. Notes that are drawn on a line are centered on the line, notes drawn in spaces almost touch the lines above and below the note. The position of any note drawn on a staff determines its "lettered tone", ranging from A to G.

Sharps, Flats, and Naturals -> the "Accidentals"

Pitches which exist between any of the lettered tones are notated by the use of symbols called "sharps(#)", "flats(b)" - similar to a lower case b, or "naturals". These symbols can occur, at the start of each line of music to define a key signature, at any point in the music where a change in key signature is to occur, or just before any note in the music to indicate that its pitch is to be altered. The sharps, flats and naturals are referred to collectively as "accidentals".

This image contains a sharp sign with a natural sign above it, and a flat sign on the next instance of the same note which had the natural sign.

Natural signs are similar to sharp signs with the upper right and lower left line segments removed and the two horizontal lines terminating exactly at the vertical lines they touch.

Glissando and Portamento

The Harvard Music Dictionary defines Glissando as "the execution of rapid scales by a sliding movement". This is sometimes confused with the term Portamento which is where the pitch is raised or lowered from one note to another with a continuous movement. It is not possible to execute a Portamento on a Classical Guitar because the pitch will always change in discreet increments when the fingers cross a fret as they slide from one note to another. The Glissando on the guitar is a chromatic scale - each succeeding tone of the scale exactly one half step from the last preceding tone - from the starting pitch to the ending pitch. It is notated by connecting the note or notes which are to be slid by a straight line, usually with the abbreviation "gliss." written above the connecting line(s).


This image contains three notes drawn with a hollow diamond shaped head to indicate that they should be played as harmonics.

The last element of pitch notation that I will discuss is the use of the harmonic pitch indicator. The sad truth is that there is no true standard for notating guitar harmonics in printed music. One common aspect of almost all harmonic notation is to draw a hollow note in a diamond shape instead of in the shape of a circle. Confusion arises because sometimes the composer indicates the actual pitch, sometimes indicates just the position of the fingers above the fret and string where the harmonic is to be created, and sometimes notates the pitch on the staff one octave below the desired pitch with the standard diamond harmonic shape. The guitar can produce natural and artificial harmonics (see lesson 5), and that also adds to the notational confusion. There are too many common variations in the notation of harmonics, but music from a reputable publisher - usually - explains how to interpret the notation of harmonics in a preface to the music in that publication. If that is not the case you should either listen to a recording of the piece, or, just use your best guess based on how it sounds to you.


Rhythm can be defined as the quality of music which determines its motion through time. In this lesson I will introduce the most common notational elements used in printed music to express rhythm. These include: the Beat; Measures; Time Signature; the "Rest"; Tempo Markings; Stems, Flags, Dots, and Ties; Legato(slur), Portato, and Stuccato; and Fermata.

The Beat

The beat of the music is the primary recurring pulse which moves the music forward. In popular music, the beat is usually very obvious. It's the feeling that makes you want to "tap your foot". Classical music does not usually exaggerate the beat to that extent. As a matter of fact, it is very often the case that classical composers deliberately write music to de-emphasize the primary beat in order to create rhythmic "flows" which can extend through many measures. It is important in your playing to always be aware of "where the beat is" so that you can work within, but not necessarily on, the beat in order to give life to the music.


The basic rhythmic "container" used in musical notation is the "Measure". A measure of music is defined as the musical notation contained within a vertical line which extends from the upper line of the staff to the lower line of the staff and the next vertical line encountered on the staff. Accidentals which occur within a measure (not key signatures) apply only to the note where the accidental appears and to subsequent identical notes within that same measure. If the composer wants the same accidental in the next measure it must be notated again. A measure MUST contain the exact number of beats of music as defined in the current time signature.

The justification for the use of measures is that most music has regular, recurring accents. In measures with four beats, the main accent is usually on the first beat of the measure and there is a weaker accent on the third beat. In measures with three beats, the first beat is strong and the third beat also contains a weaker accent. Be aware that not all music written uses measures, however, most of the music you will probably see as a classical guitarist (except for some very modern pieces) will use measures in the notation. They are an invaluable aid to sight reading, a skill too few guitarists ever master.

Time Signature

A time signature is comprised of two numbers written on the staff immediately following the key signature of the first line of the music and at any point in the music where the composer wants to change the time signature. The form of the signature is an upper number and a lower number, similar to a mathematical fraction. The lower number indicates the base unit of measurement, i.e. the unit of measure used for each beat, and the upper number indicates how many of the base units, or beats, should appear in each measure. For example, a time signature of 3/4 means that the base unit is the 4th note (the "quarter note"), and that there are three of those base units contained in each measure. In an manner exactly analogous to fractions, the number of base units can be any combination of fractional sub-divisions or multiples of the base unit that sum EXACTLY to (in this case) three beats where each beat is a quarter note. A measure of 3/4 can contain six 8th notes (sums to 3/4), one half note and one quarter note (sums to 3/4), or any of an infinite combination of notes and note duration's as long as the sum is 3/4.

The most common time signature used in our music is 4/4. It is so common that it has earned the moniker "common time". Common time is notated by either 4/4 or by a large C. You might also see a large C with a short vertical line "cutting it in half". That symbol is a shortcut for 2/2 - two beats per measure with each beat equal to a half note - and is commonly called "cut time".

The Rest

The figure above shows the notational symbols for "rests". A rest is a period of time within the music where a "voice" is silenced. It can be argued that the rest should be considered as a pitch - the "no pitch" - which must be "played" just like any other pitch. Regardless of how it is viewed, rests are an important part of any piece of music. Some types of music require a very strict adherence to the rests within the music in order to realize the total musical effect of the piece. This is especially true in music from the "classical" period (about 1770 to 1830. Rests can be loosely interpreted in other music, especially more romantic or music with its roots in "folk" culture.

It is important to carefully consider how to play any rests within the music you are studying. Some players never "stop" notes after they are played, they simply allow the note to fade away or it just stops when the player moves his fingers to go to another note. While that technique of playing results in a more full sound on the guitar, it can often result in harmonies that take away from the direction which the music should be going.

Tempo Markings

Tempo markings give the player an indication of the tempo or speed at which to play each beat.  Most printed music uses words or phrases to indicate the tempo.  From slowest to fastest, the following tempo markings are commonly used but are by no means the only possible markings: Largo, Larghetto, Adagio, Andante, Moderato, Allegro, Presto, and Prestissimo.  They represent absolute speeds ranging from about 40 beats per minute to about 200 beats per minute.  Modern music is often marked with symbolic declarations where a basic unit (half note, quarter note, eighth note, etc.) is explicitly set equal to some number of beats per minute.  Some composers have begun using tempo markings which state the composers desire for the time duration of the entire piece. It's then up to the player to figure out haw fast to play the piece so that it ends at the right time.

Other tempo markings are used to specify the composer's desire for the player to slow down or speed up at certain points in the music.  The term "ritardando", or "rit" or "ritard", means to gradually slow the tempo, a "Ritenuto" indicates an immediate slow down is required.  An "Accelerando", or "Accel", means to speed up the music.  The most abused and misunderstood marking is the "Rubato".  It is most commonly used to indicate to the player that rhythmic freedom should be taken by slowing or speeding the tempo slightly, being careful that the first note played at the conclusion of the rubato occurs at exactly the same time it would have occurred had no rubato been played.  That result rarely occurs in actual performance so a rubato effectively results in the player ignoring the beat and just being expressive at that point in the music.

Heads, Stems, Flags, Dots, and Ties
One of the principal aspects of rhythm is the expression of the duration of each note. All notes are written with a "head" - the circular part of the note to which a "stem" can be attached.  If a stem is attached to the note head, it may have one or more "flags".  Finally, the head-stem-flag group may have one or two "dots" following the symbol.  When the head of the note is drawn as an open circle with no stem, it is a "whole note".  If the circle has a stem attached, the note becomes a "half-note.  If the circle is filled in, it becomes a "quarter-note".  Add one flag and you've got an "eighth-note", add two flags - a "sixteenth-note", three flags for a "32nd-note", etc. for a practical limit of 5 flags.  You cannot have a filled in head with no stem or an open circle head with a flag.  Those limitations make it easier to quickly understand the duration of the note when the music is read.

Dots can be appended to any type of note or rest, each dot adds one half the duration of the value to the immediate left of the dot.  For example, if you have a whole note (open circle) and you "dot" it, you have a note with the duration of a whole-note plus a half-note. If you "dot" it again (double dot), you add another half of the half-note.  In terms of quarter notes, that would be 4 (the whole note) plus 2 (the first dot) plus 1 (the second dot) = 7 quarter notes.  Dats a lot a dots, but you can be comforted in knowing that you will rarely see any more than one dot used on any one note in most musical scores.

A tie is a short arched line that connects two adjacent notes of the same pitch.  It functions to extend the duration of the first note by the value of the note to which it is tied. Ties are often used to extend a note past a single measure.

Legato (slur), Leggiero, Staccato, and Portato

Another important aspect of rhythm is the question of what happens between each note. The "legato" is notated by an arching curve which starts above the first note of the passage to which the legato is to be applied, and extends to the last note of the legato. It is used to indicate that each note should be played as "connected" to the previous note as possible.  Do not confuse the legato with the "tie".  The legato connects notes of differing pitches, the tie connects notes of the same pitch.

The leggiero is written with a short horizontal line above the note and indicates that there should be a clear separation between the sound of the each succeeding note.

The staccato is notated by placing a small dot directly above each note to which the effect is to be used. To play a note "stuccato", you must stop the tone quickly after sounding it. The note can be stopped by slightly lifting the finger of the left hand, by placing a finger of the right hand on the string to dampen the sound, or by any other method that you can devise that is convenient to the musical passage being played. Be careful to make sure that the note is actually sounded - it is easy to make the duration so short that it sounds more like a tambora than a stuccato.

The portato is played by sounding the note for about half of the note's duration; the other half of the duration is to be treated as a rest.  A portato is notated by placing a slur above the desired notes which themselves are written with "staccato" markings.


A fermata is indicated by a symbol which consists of a small dot with an arch over the dot. It means that you should stop the rhythmic flow and suspend the music for the period of time that you, as a performer, should decide upon. The duration of the fermata will depend on the musical context to which it is applied.


Musical Dynamics are defined here to be the intensity or volume of the sound and the changes in that intensity through time. The word "dynamic" implies motion or change. In the context of music, Dynamics are both static and dynamic in that a constant volume at a certain intensity, such as "Forte (from the Italian word meaning strong) would have the static dynamic marking "f". The use of dynamics in music is very subjective and depends very much on the instrument and the context of the music. A dynamic marking of "f" in Lute music can not be realized with the same level of intensity as the same marking on music for a baritone saxophone. We will cover the symbols for piano (p), forte (f), mezzo (m), cresendo, decresendo, and Sforzando.

p, f, and m

There are only two dynamic markings in common use: piano (p) and forte (f). These marks are often doubled (pp, ff) or tripled (ppp, fff) to indicate degrees of piano or forte; more "p's" mean make the music quieter, more "f's" mean make it louder. As in the rhythmic indicators, words such as pianissimo (pp) and fortissimo (ff) are also commonly used. The modifier Mezzo (m), meaning "half" is also often applied to dynamic markings. For example, mp, meaning mezzo piano, could also be written as pp. Obviously, there is a lot of subjectivity with this type of notation. I have never seen absolute markings such as "90db", which would be equivalent to the absolute rhythmic markings of "d=60", but, who knows. With modern electronic music that might become common practice. I think you can rest fairly confidently that it won't happen in classical guitar music.

cresendo and decresendo

The cresendo and decresendo are common markings which indicate increasing or decreasing volume respectively. A cresendo marking is drawn as two lines of equal length which intersect at their origin on the left end of the symbol, and open gradually as the symbol extends to the right. The symbol is drawn with its origin at the starting point of the cresendo and it extends to the where the composer wants the effect to stop. A decresendo has its open end on the left and converges as the symbol extends to the right. There is frequently a dynamic letter symbol at the start and end of a cresendo marking (i.e. ppp>fff) If the cresendo or decresendo must last for too long a time for it to be practically drawn, the words cresendo or decresendo are written in the musical score with a single line drawn which extends beneath the musical passage to which the effect is to be played.


Another common dynamic marking is the Sforzando (sf or sfz). It is drawn above the notes where it is to be applied and it indicates that a sudden strong accent is required at that point.

Dynamics on the classic guitar

It is not that difficult to create very effective dynamics on the classic guitar, however, many professional classical guitarists under-utilize the potential of that technique. If you play each note so that it rings clearly on the instrument, even a triple piano can be heard at quite a distance from the source. The biggest threat to effective dynamics on the guitar is tension in the hands. Tension tends to mute the sound and prevent the guitar from amplifying each note so that is projects to the audience. You can practice dynamics by just playing a single note. Some guitarists claim they can actually cause the sound of the note to increase in volume AFTER it is played! That seems illogical at first until you consider that other strings and the top of the instrument can begin to resonant along with the note you first sound. It may be possible, but I haven't yet reached the point where I have can personally verify that effect.


Technically, Timbre is a quality of sound that is caused by the harmonic content of that sound. This is more fully explained in the supplement to Lesson 5: The Acoustics of Music. Timbre is used on the Classic Guitar to add "color" to the music. I will often use the word color instead of Timbre because music is painted with the harmonic palette of Timbre in much the same way an artist uses color to give life to his paintings.

Notation of Timbre

There are only a few notational elements that hve been used traditionally to denote timbre in printed guitar music. Modern guitar music has expanded the notation to indicate how to make sounds that can be produced with a guitar but are not part of the traditional technique of the instrument. I won't attempt to address these modern notational elements because they are not standardized and won't generally be used by players just beginning their study of the instrument.


The meaning of Pizzicato on the guitar is slightly different than how it is interpreted on other stringed instruments. Pizzicato as applied to the violin and other orchestral string instruments that use a bow just means to pluck the strings as one would pluck a guitar or a harp. Since the strings of a guitar are normally plucked, the technique as applied to a guitar is achieved by damping the string with the fleshy part of the right hand as the strings are plucked by the thumb or fingers. Various effects can be achieved by varying the amount of pressure used when damping the string.


If the head of a note is written in the shape of an X instead of the usual shape, the note should be fingered with the left hand as per the location of the note on the staff, but played by striking the string with the outside edge of the right thumb as you would strike a drum or "Tambora". The pitch of the note can be heard, but, because it is not possible to drum on only one string without also striking adjacent strings, the effect is difficult to control.

The next lesson will talk about how to control the timbre of the sound on the guitar, and how to apply it to your playing.

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