Guitar Technique Tip of the Month

Your Personal Guitar Lesson

Douglas Niedt


Most of the music we play has a melody, accompaniment, and bass part. In other words, it is written in multiple voices. I find that many beginners and even intermediate guitarists sometimes have difficulty counting pieces written in multiple parts. This month’s tip explains how multiple voices work and how to figure out how to count them.

You may especially be interested in the video towards the end of the tip. I explain how the voices work in Fernando Sor’s very popular Study No. 5, a piece many of you probably play or want to learn.

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HOW TO COUNT THE RHYTHMS IN SONGS
WRITTEN IN MULTIPLE PARTS

By Douglas Niedt

Copyright Douglas Niedt. All Rights Reserved. This article may be reprinted, but please be considerate and give credit to Douglas Niedt.

The ability to play multiple parts of a song at the same time is one of the distinctive strengths of the classical guitarist and fingerstyle guitarist. Other guitarists and musicians marvel at our ability to play a melody, accompaniment part, and bass line at the same time; and our ability to play counterpoint of two, three, and four parts or voices. But counting the rhythms of music written in multiple parts often confuses beginning and even intermediate guitarists.

Let’s look at a simple example to understand the basics:






The problem with this shorthand style of notation is that it doesn’t make clear that the music is in two parts. It is not clear that the higher-range notes comprise the melody, the notes of which should be connected, and that the lower notes comprise the bass part.

Let’s improve the notation a little bit by stemming the melody notes upward and the bass notes downward:






By stemming the melody notes upward and the bass notes downward, it is a little clearer that the music is in two parts. But it still isn’t clear that the melody notes are to be connected. Some guitarists might lift each melody note when the bass note is played. It would sound disjointed like this:






To make it clear the melody is be connected, I would notate it like this:






Some of you may object that it looks like there are too many beats in each measure:






But an important rule to know is that the different stem directions of the notes separates the music into separate parts. We call the separate parts “voices”. This nomenclature comes from choir music in which the individual parts; soprano, alto, tenor, and bass, are sung by “voices”. Look closely at the direction of the stems on the notes. Notice that the melody notes are stemmed upwards and the bass notes are stemmed downwards. This means that the rhythmic values of the notes with their stems pointing upwards are to be counted independently from the notes with their stems pointing downwards:






When counting a passage written in multiple parts or voices, you must count the rhythmic values of each voice separately and independently from the others.

As re-written in example #6, the melody or upper voice or soprano (red notes) clearly has four beats in each measure. In the bass part (the green notes), I have written in the beat numbers and put a square around the beats on which a bass note is played. However, many beats are unaccounted for. In measure #1 there are no green notes (the bass voice) on the first and second beats. The A is played on beat three but there is no green note on beat four. Likewise, it seems there are green notes missing in the other measures as well.

The reason for this is that guitar composers and arrangers sometimes use shorthand notation to make the page look less cluttered. In this example, the spacing of the notes makes it clear on which beats the bass notes are played. What is not clear is the intended duration of those bass notes. The basses are notated as quarter notes. If one decides the bass notes are to be played literally as quarter notes, they must be damped or muted as indicated by the rests in this example:






But I think most guitarists would interpret the shorthand notation in example #6 as meaning the composer wanted the bass notes to ring freely. They wouldn’t bother with all the string damping. But the fact is, it could be interpreted either way. If the composer wanted to make it very clear that he wanted the basses to ring to their full extent, he would have to notate it like this:






This certainly makes it clear which melody notes are to be held and which bass notes are to ring. But compare this example with the shorthand version (example #6). Many people prefer the shorthand version because it is less cluttered. Others prefer the fully-notated version for its precision.

To confuse things a bit more, some composers/arrangers use semi-shorthand notation such as this:






Here, the notation for the melody is clear. The bass, while it appears to be precise, is not intended to be played as notated! This example comes from a beginning guitar method. The author clearly did not intend the beginning student to damp the bass notes on the first beat of each measure. The rests are shorthand or a notational convenience to avoid cluttering the score with ties.

Sometimes a composer will use shorthand notation and a more precise notation in the same score. Here are two measures from Fernando Sor’s Twenty-Four Very Easy Exercises, Op. 35 No. 1:






The intention is certainly to hold the low B and C in the first measure as half notes and to hold the D in the second measure as a whole note:






It could have been notated more precisely like this:






Which is exactly what he does five measures later in a similar passage:






But now we are dealing with three voices. However, regardless of how many voices are in a passage, use the same guiding principle: count the rhythmic values of each voice separately and independently from the others.

I have color coded the voices to make it easier to understand. The melody (red notes) is counted like this:






The bass voice (green notes) is counted the same way as the melody since both are a series of half notes:






The middle voice which could be called the accompaniment or alto or tenor voice (purple notes) is counted like this:






The first count is the purple quarter rest. Then, the first G is played on beat 2. Next, the second G is played on beat 4. The same counting pattern is present in the second measure.

When you put all three parts together into an ultimate shorthand version, you end up with:






Here is an example of a passage in three voices in ¾ time. This is from Fernando Sor’s Twenty Four Progressive Lessons, Op. 31, No. 1:




Again I have color coded the notes so you can easily see the melody (red), accompaniment (purple), and bass (green). Once again, we must count the rhythm of each voice separately before we can understand how they fit together.

Here is the melody (red notes):






Here is the bass part (green notes):






And finally the middle voice or accompaniment:






Put them all together into shorthand notation and you end up with:






You will notice that when three voices are present, two of the voices will be stemmed the same direction. In examples #18-21 above, the accompaniment and bass voices are both stemmed downwards.

But of course things are never simple. Sometimes notes or chords in a voice are not stemmed the same direction. Check out this measure from Francisco Tárrega’s Adelita:






At first is difficult to tell where the melody is and where the accompaniment notes are. Here is my color coded version to help you out:






Again, the melody is the red notes. But this time the melody is in the middle voice. The highest notes comprise the accompaniment (purple notes). The lowest notes still belong to the bass part (green). But not all the melody notes are stemmed the same direction. And the two accompaniment chords are stemmed opposite.

Personally, I would have notated it like this:






Here it is without the color coding:






Another anomaly you will run across is voices suddenly dropping out or unaccounted for. Let’s look at Capricho Árabe by Francisco Tárrega. The accompaniment (or rhythm guitar part) which is the middle voice, consistently drops out on the third beat of several measures:






Notice that in each measure the purple 8th rests and 8th notes only add up to two beats. Two beats are unaccounted for in each measure. Personally, I would have added half rests on the third beat of each measure to account for those missing beats.

Sometimes a note may serve as a member of two voices. In Fernando Sor’s Twenty-Four Very Easy Pieces, Op. 35 No. 2 the low C’s serve both as half-note bass notes and as part of the arpeggiated accompaniment pattern:






In other words, each C is not only a half note in the bass voice (the stem going downwards) but is also a 16 note (stem going upwards and connected to the 16th note beam) in the accompaniment or middle voice.

In the well-known Study No. 5 (as numbered by Segovia in “The 20 Studies” by Fernando Sor) things get complicated. At first glance, it is difficult to understand which notes belong to which voice.






The piece has multiple voices. But how many voices are present? And which notes belong to which voice? You must unravel all that before you will be able to figure out the counting. This one I will have to explain with a video. Watch:

If you don't see a video, refresh your browser.

Be sure to watch the video on full screen. Click the symbol in the lower right-hand corner after the video begins playing. Hit escape "ESC" on your keyboard to return to normal viewing.

As you see from the video, depending on how the composer has chosen to notate the music, it can take quite a bit of investigation to figure out how many voices are present and which notes belong to which voice. Once you figure that out, it is a simple matter of counting the note values of each voice separately and then combining them all together.

If you are dealing with counterpoint, the same counting principles apply. Count each voice separately, and then put them together. Here are the first six measures of the Prelude from Bach’s Lute Suite BWV 995. I have changed the meter from 2/2 to 4/4 to make it easier to count. I have also omitted ornaments.






Measures one and two are straightforward. You only need to focus on counting the upper voice (red). Measure three is a little more complex because the bass part becomes more active. In the fourth measure, notice that the bass voice (green) drops out and the middle voice enters (purple). Finally all three voices are present in measures five and six.

Once again, to figure out how the passage is to be played, it is essential to determine the counting within each individual voice first. Then, combine them.


Summary

The first step in figuring out how to count a passage written in multiple voices is to analyze the voices.

  • First, figure out how many voices are present.

  • Then figure out which notes belong to which voice.

  • Count the note values and rhythms in each voice. For each voice, try to account for all the beats in each measure.

Remember, the composer may have taken notation shortcuts. If you can’t decipher it visually, play the passage as best you can to try to hear the composer’s intentions. If you look at what’s on the page with your eyes and listen to the music with your ears, you will be able to sort the notes into their proper voices, count the rhythms of each voice individually, and finally combine them accurately into a whole.

Download the PDF

The PDF Version

We have a PDF version of this article with the video embedded in the document so you can save the entire article to your computer, video included!

IMPORTANT:

The PDF version of this article contains embedded video. The video will not play well unless you save this PDF to your computer first. Then, open the file you just saved and the videos will play smoothly. The PDF is 176 MB so it may take a while to download.

Note: You must have Adobe Reader 10 or later installed on your computer to play the video contained in the PDF. Download Adobe Reader here.