Andante Music

Played with fingers and nails

Miloš Karadaglić  

I distinctly remember the morning seven years ago when a large group of eager teenagers were waving drivers into the car wash in Campbell, a beautiful city in Santa Clara County, on the southern edge of Silicon Valley. I left the car in the hands of two boys who started washing the car with astonishing vigour and enthusiasm, and sauntered into Fine Fretted String Instruments, a small store at the junction of Bascomb and Hamilton Avenue. That’s where I first learned that classical guitars use six nylon strings (as opposed to steel strings used in acoustic and rock guitars), are played with fingers and nails (yes, you need to grow, maintain and shape nails very carefully) and some of the most beautiful musical pieces have been written for the classical guitar.

I started taking lessons from Randi, the store-owner, and my musical life changed for ever. Although it is unlikely that I will ever become a concert guitarist, I have earned a pass into the deeply enriching world of Western classical music with my sincere efforts to learn the instrument.

A measure and three beats

Whenever we are trying to develop a taste for a new genre of music, the first step perhaps is to listen to the famous pieces over and over. You could start with ‘Spanish Romance’, also known as ‘Romance de Amor’, one of the most popular solo classical guitar pieces from the 19th century, played by Miloš Karadaglić, a classical guitarist from Montenegro. We don’t know who composed Spanish Romance, but luckily that doesn’t take away from the enjoyment of this beautiful piece.


Western Classical music is organised in measures, where each measure is a pattern of a group of beats. There are 52 measures in Spanish Romance. Each measure has three beats, each beat represents a quarter note giving the piece a time signature of 3/4. The first beat of each measure has an emphasis, the so-called downbeat. If you listen carefully, you will hear three notes per beat.

‘Spanish Romance’ has two sections (say A and B) and is usually played in AABBA structure, where the A section is in the key of E minor and the B section in E major.

One way to understand what we are hearing is to mentally break up the score into three parts and focus our attention on trying to listen to the melody, the harmony and the bass. The topline melody, usually the high notes, is the song that you can hum to. There is a texture of repeated notes that provides the background stream of harmony that the melody floats over. Finally, you will hear a deep note on the first beat of every measure, the so-called bass, that anchors the song.

Usually, the set of notes played with a measure are parts of a chord of the key the song is played in (E minor or E major depending on which measure is being played). Instead of playing the chord as a strum (playing all the notes at the same time), the bass and melody notes (the highest and the lowest notes) are struck at the same time with thumb and index finger to start every measure. For the rest of the measure, you hear the melody note distinctly and the harmony notes in the background. The index finger plays the melody note, the middle and the ring finger play the harmony notes.

You will notice that the piece is not being played at a steady tempo. Milos is using a technique called ‘tempo rubato’ (meaning ‘stolen time’ in Italian) slowing down in certain places and speeding up in some other parts such that the overall time remains constant. The song will sound rather flat without this rhythmic freedom and the associated dramatic expression. If you hear a soulful, distinct, quivering, pulsating note that sustains, you are probably hearing a ‘vibrato’, a technique used in classical guitar for emotional expressiveness.

Armed with the knowledge of the structure of a classical piece, listen to ‘Etude, Op. 60, No. 19’ a very simple piece composed by Matteo Carcassi, played by Edson Lopes, a Brazilian classical guitarist, composer and arranger.


The classical guitar tremolo

Classical guitars don’t sustain notes very well, compared to a piano or a violin. The tremolo is used to create the effect of a sustained melody. A classical guitarist will use a thumb stroke on a lower string and three rapid repeated notes with the ring, middle and index finger on the higher strings to play a four-note group to sustain the effect.

‘Recuerdos de la Alhambra’ (Memories of the Alhambra) composed in 1896 in Granada by Spanish composer and guitarist Francisco Tárrega is one of the most iconic tremolo pieces. It was written to celebrate the majestic Alhambra palace and its breathtakingly beautiful gardens, once a royal palace of the Moorish kings described by Moorish poets as a pearl set in emeralds.


Another beautiful piece in classical guitar repertoire that explains the tremolo is ‘Una Limosna por el Amor de Dios’ (An alm for the love of God) by Agustine Barrios Mangore, a Paraguayan classical guitar player and prolific composer of classical guitar music.

The latter was apparently inspired by a blind beggar who knocked on the composer’s door to ask for alms. The beginning notes of the piece represent the knock on the door.


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Printable version | Apr 24, 2021 4:06:44 PM |

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