Six-part canon for solo guitar (video)

Welcome back. This week you can hear me playing the six-part canon, the first one in the series of canons I told you about last week. You can see the score here too.

The guitar is by Brian Cohen, currently very kindly on loan from David Coffey.



While I did indeed write this as an exercise of what I thought would be the maximum number of voices the instrument could handle, a canon has no musical value if it is just a canon for the sake of a canon. And so I’m pleased to say there are some things I like about the piece musically:

  • The sombre mood created by the melody and the harmony;
  • The harmony – although I more or less just created it from whatever notes my fingers could reach and is a bit tricky to pinpoint tonally, it doesn’t feel unnatural to me;
  • The arc of development of the piece – the way it grows and declines;
  • I liked my idea of taking advantage of the guitar’s natural tuning by making it a canon at the fourth (i.e. the melody in each new voice is at an interval of a perfect fourth above the previous voice), and limiting the range to the first four frets of each string, enabling each voice to remain on each string, and the piece to be playable;
  • I was actually able to play it;
  • It also has the climax at exactly the golden section, that is, at 0.618… of the way through (approximately). It definitely counts as on purpose, seeing as I’ve made the conscious decision to leave it like that after noticing it…


The tight technical restrictions did still make it difficult to bring as much musicality to it as I might like in a few areas:

  • The melody of the canon didn’t have much in the way of characteristic motifs, other than the first bar or two, and after the third bar the notes were used almost purely for the harmony, and so that it would be a canon with six voices sounding at the same time. By the time the fifth voice entered, I was basically too limited by what my fingers could do (and by the fact it was a strict canon) to make the voices do any more than play an open string;
  • Some of the chords have stretches that are almost impossible for me, and might be too difficult for other people.
  • I might have liked the piece to be a bit longer, but this wasn’t possible because I didn’t manage to give the melody enough interest due to the restricted range of a fourth, and the lack of characteristic rhythms, thus there wasn’t much scope for development.
  • I would’ve liked it to repeat, i.e. for it to go back to the beginning and feed into itself like canons often do. I tried various ways to get it to repeat, but it ended up being either impossible to play for the left hand, or I didn’t like the harmony. I’ll try again in future canons.

Lessons learnt

Although this is only a small piece, I still found a few useful things to help me in the future when composing or playing the guitar:

  • As I mentioned, the range restriction was helpful to make it more playable. It is, however, hard to create characteristic melodies with such a small range of notes and little in the way of rhythm. I think if I’m crafty, I could use the restricted range at certain points in a piece and expand at others to balance musical interest and playability;
  • If the left hand is too full, characteristic rhythms could be created by just repeating notes (I didn’t do this in this canon);
  • There’s a lot to be said for not restricting the harmony too much and simply taking whatever notes are available. If you’re careful and understand the kind of chords, interval schemes etc. you’re using, it can be effective and coherent;
  • On the guitar playing side of things, this canon has been a great exercise for me in legato playing with chords, i.e. linking the chords together so that the changes are smooth. Since it’s important for the melodic lines to be as legato as possible, you can choose to hold particular notes that stand out more while releasing the fingers on less important notes in preparation for the next chord. In this way, there is an illusion of legato because the sound doesn’t stop completely between chord changes and the melodies are maintained better. You can also spread chords (arpeggiate them) so that you have the fraction of a second necessary to move your fingers to the higher notes.


I’ve been planning to compose this canon series counting down from six to two voices repeatedly, so the next canon would be for five voices. But on the other hand, I often like to compose pieces that are opposite in character to the one I’ve just written, so I might do two. We’ll have to wait and see. Watch this space!

Movement II – Guitar Piece – Preview (video)

Here’s me practising the piece I’m working on right now.

It’s only the beginning, just so you can hear a little bit and get an idea what it sounds like. And it’s as far as I’ve managed to learn how to play, complete with fluff-ups. It could probably go a couple of clicks faster too.

You can find the first draft of the score here if you missed it last week.

The hand-written draft

What you hear here essentially comes from the first 25 seconds of what you heard in last week’s video. You’ll hear what the other 16 seconds have turned into in a later post – when I’ve learnt to play it.

Context of this preview within the piece

What you hear is probably about a third of the whole of this second movement. Structurally, it’s basically a first theme, a transition, a second theme, a transition, and then right at the end there’s a return to the first theme, although modified.

Learning the piece

Since learning this piece is not easy, I’d like to talk about how I’m learning it, and maybe help anyone else who might want to do me the great honour of having a go at playing it.

Technical aspects

The piece is actually technically pretty simple, I haven’t really used any very difficult chord shapes or big stretches (well, not too many), and there aren’t any really fast scales.

The hardest aspects

Confusion and spinning out

The technical side of things is not exactly easy, but the hardest thing I’ve found is mentally coordinating each tiny element of the piece.

Many passages use few different pitches, but played on different strings with different articulations – plucked, hammered-on or pulled-off. With limited variation in pitches, this means you’re playing similar things in different ways, and it’s easy to get confused about what goes where.

When practising a passage, you make a mistake, try again, make a mistake, try again, all the while with quite similar sounding notes ringing in your ears. This can be a bit of a spin-out. I’ve often had to stop and have a few seconds of silence to reset and re-centre myself, as it were, before carrying on.

After a while the confusion passes, and I’ve found that after a while you get the sense of the flow of the music and it comes through the fingers more naturally. It is taking me some practice though.

Pain, blisters and callouses

The right-hand thumb plays an essential, as well as loud, role in this piece. The flesh just under the side of the nail does take bit of a beating. A bit of pain never did anyone any harm, but I suggest stopping before you get a blister so the callous can form properly. Nice. I’ve decided to spare you pictures.

Because there are a lot of forceful ligados (hammer-ons and pull-offs), the left-hand  index finger gets pressed against the strings in ways that can hurt a bit while practising. You get used to it. I reckon players who are more careful than me won’t get this problem as much though.

Interpretation of the piece

There is no room for interpretation! I play the piece exactly as the composer intended. Well, of course I would if I could play it properly. Hopefully with some more practice. You might have other ideas though, and that’s cool. Just make sure the character of the music is there. 

I do, however, have the opposite problem, which is that I need to make the character clear in the notes. I haven’t used many words in this first draft, except the Italian brutale towards the end. That’ll take some more thinking.

Next time

Next time I’ll explain some more theoretical stuff on how I’ve made the piece – how I’ve designed the melody, and harmonic aspects and their close relationship to the guitar. Let me know what you think!