Early Guitars and Vihuela

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Im thinking there is an interesting role of the guitar in the development of chord based harmony.....Im just working through an idea here......Any suggestions for reading material would be appreciated. I am sorry if Im not asking this particularly clearly. 

As a classical and jazz/pop/ blues/ whatever guitarist in my early music educational journey, I had a clear idea  (so I thought) about the role of chords in melodic music..... the idea of a melody fitting over a chord progression... this is not a particularly complicated concept, and its absolutely foundational to understanding a huge amount of western music.

When I was a student in music school, my thinking was "corrected" for classical music...

Harmony was what happened when multiple melodies coincide...counterpoint...

this was how s"serious music" was written. a chord progression with melodies that fit over them was just the pop musicians aproach....

so what I'm looking for is some reading material about the early history of the chord progression approach to harmony, in contrast to the counterpoint approach. 

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Maybe I should come at the question Im trying to ask a bit differently. I think that alfabeto is clear evidence for this way of conceptualizing chords, and while I know other instruments can play the same chord voicing, I don't know for sure that they did quite the same things. Is there any evidence for a comparable chord based harmony aproach on other instruments? I think alfabeto is a significantly different approach from figured bass, which is still more linear, I would say than the more vertical chord structures approach that guitarists have used for so long. Did this kind of harmony exist before the 5 course baroque guitar and alfabeto?

Dear Bill, these are interesting questions. I roughly agree that alfabeto is 'a different way of conceptualizing chords' from figured bass (though not completely separate, as you may know if you have a reasonable experience of both practices). 

You might look into Lex Eisenhardts recent book Italian Guitar Music of the Seventeenth Century: Battuto and Pizzicato for more on strumming and plucking on five course guitars. Besides that there are many publications available on the history of harmony in Western music. The idea of harmony as 'vertical chords' instead of as the resultant of 'horizontal counterpoint' is supposed to have started with the writings of Rameau, so maybe start your reading with him. 

The seminal article on the subject is Thomas Christensen's article "The Spanish baroque guitar and 17th century triadic theory" in the Journal of Music Theory no. 36 (1992), p.1-42. There is some evidence that a more chordal approach was sometimes adopted by the lute when accompanying solo songs due to the influence of  the guitar and alfabeto. This method of conceptualizing chords is probably Spanish originally - there were other Spanish systems of notation which may predate alfabeto. Certainly other instruments like the cittern also used this type of notation.   Rameau is much later.  Guitarists were there long before.

Excellent. Thank you. Im searching for this article now.

Dear Bill,

To answer your question directly, I really can't think of any similar instrument which has such a reasonably full chordal shorthand (other than just possibly the lirone).  Although, of course, guitar alfabeto (and similar shorthand systems) is not wholly comprehensive in enabling all chords to be notated:  for example a chord with just notes A#, C#, E  leading onto a Bm chord (ignoring the position of each note in the chord) has no exact alfabeto (as far as I'm aware!), though recourse can be made to an alfabeto G2 chord. But this also gives the fundemental F# and not the seventh (E). In practice I might sometimes use modern chord names in these situations and write something like F#7 (if the harmonic progression is appropriate.....).

Naturally this is only possible if one is, as I think you are, only considering Platonic-like block chords with no particular note in the bass (or treble for that matter). It's interesting that the Old Ones soon employed mixed tablature to get round this sort of problem. And the adoption, not always consistently, of lettere tagliate (see Monica Hall's site for much more on this) can also help avoid some unwanted chords.  Ricci's system could, I suppose, be extended to cover a G2 chord by writing G2t and thus also playing the open first course (ie an E) - though as far as I'm aware Ricci never himself extended his system to G2 chords in this way.

Regarding the lirone: it has numerous tunings (and strings!) and I recall it being suggested many years ago that it may have employed some form of shorthand for notating chords - but I'm very much out of my comfort zone with this beast!

You also ask 'Did this kind of harmony exist before the 5 course baroque guitar and alfabeto?'. Some early 16thC four course guitar (gittern) tablatures certainly suggest block chord strumming play but, as far as I've seen, all fully written out in tablature (similar in fact to the later early 17thC 5 course stuff in French sources) and, in my view, with the fourth course bass string on the outside (ie plucked by the thumb first). 


I think the point is that basic alfabeto only covers major and minor common chords - that is chords comprising a major or minor third and a perfect fifth.  The example A# - C~ E is a diminished triad.  Lettere tagliate or alfabeto falso or whatever you wish to call it covers chords of the 7th and chords needed to introduce a 4-3 suspension, not chromatic harmony. Natasha Miles dissertation  "Approaches to accompaniment on the baroque guitar" covers the topic exhaustively. It is available on line.  In Spanish sources almost certainly other plucked stringed instruments like the cittern used chord notation.

I agree absolutely - I was merely trying to think round the issue of practical ways of tackling other harmonies, rather than just the major and minor chords covered by simple alfabeto,  since this is what I thought Bill was also asking about,

And yes again, Miles's dissertation is good and she's also posted quite a few useful things on this site too. Here's the link to her paper:



Thanks for the link - I had lost it although I downloaded it some time ago.

Thank you for the link. Ive downloaded it and will be reading it immediately

from Miles dissertation:

.......Richard Taruskin states, for example:

"Oral" practices that we know only imperfectly if at all - for example, the use of chord- strumming instruments in unwritten musical repertoires and their effect in reconditioning musical "hearing" during the two centuries in question [1450-1650] - unquestionably had an important bearing, but one that can never be fully documented, on the "transition" from modal discant counterpoint ("their" way of composing) to functional harmony ("our" way of hearing) . . 

. It seems virtually certain that harmonic progressions as such were developed on indeed, right “out of” – strumming and striking instruments for which no notation existed at the time.13 .......

Yes, I think this is just what I was looking for. Thank you!

I've seen alfabeto for cittern and for some other four-string plucked instrument.  Any idea of other instruments with an alfabeto?

That is an interesting question.  Millioni's 1631 Corona del primo secondo i terzo libro etc. includes a table of alfabeto chords for the 4-course "chitarrino over Chitarra Italiana".   This may be a small 4-course lute, rather than guitar.  What he actually says is...

Chi volesse ancor'imparare à far le lettere per sonar' il Chitarrino, overo Chitarra Italiana per via di numeri, e linee, si servi delli medesimi numeri, e linee, lasciando però la quinta corda, & osservi la medesima regola.

If you also wish to learn to play the letters in order to play the Chitarrino or Chitarra Italiana by way of numbers and lines, make use of the same numbers and lines leaving out the fifth course and follow the same rule.

Another thing worth bearing in mind is that other plucked stringed instruments would have been able to play from alfabeto provided they had a table setting out the same chords in a way fits them to a different tuning. The Codice Saldivar no. 2 which is for cittern has a table of Castilian cifras.  With this information any cittern player would have been able to play any music with Castilian cifras.   This kind of chord notation is not necessarily specific to the guitar.  Another example - early Italian songbooks have alfabeto added to the voice part.  We assume that the accompaniment can only be provided by the guitar but this may not always have been the case.  Other plucked stringed instruments could have played from it.


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