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Writing for the Lute

Notation and tuning

The lute family is a large and varied one, with instruments of many different sizes and tunings (the nearest equivalent in terms of variant tunings now is the banjo). Most lute songs of the Elizabethan and Jacobean periods were written for a renaissance tuning in G.

Here are the open strings, which are known as "courses":
1st course (single) g, notated above the top line of the treble clef, though it sounds an octave lower.
2nd course (paired unisons) d
3rd course (paired unisons) a
4th course (paired unisons) f
5th course (paired unisons) c
6th course (paired, an octave apart) g/G
7th course (paired, an octave apart) f/F
8th course (paired, an octave apart) e/E
9th course (paired, an octave apart) d/D
10th course (paired, an octave apart) c/C

The sounding length of the open string is shortened or stopped by pressing next to the frets which are placed at semitone intervals apart; so, on the first course g the first fret is Aflat, second A, 3rd Bflat and so on.

If you have access to a guitar, the easiest way to get a feel for the tuning of the first six strings is to tune your guitar G down to Fsharp. Then the intervals will be correct, the only difference being that a guitar is a 3rd lower, in E. The 7th-10th courses (known as diapasons) tended to be used as open strings for added resonance (more on that in a minute), sometimes stopped at the first fret for chromatic notes.

This was represented in different forms of tablature, the most common being French tablature, which told the player where to put their fingers: a being an open string, b the first fret, c the second and so on. The advantage of this was that players could play fairly complex music without having to understand what the actual notes were, the disadvantage was that players often played complex music without understanding what the notes were!

You may wish to write in tablature (rock guitarists use it all the time...) but staff notation is also fine. There are two ways to do this:
  1.  All on treble clef (sounding an octave down) like classical guitar.
  2. Treble and bass clef, as with keyboard music, especially if you write in a texture that tends to separate out bass from treble.

Colour and resonance: where the lute is different from the guitar

A lot of the character of the sound of the lute comes from the arrangement of doubling strings: a pair in unison resonate together (and was the source of many metaphors about strings in harmony vibrating together etc). At this time period the lute was played with the fingertips rather than the nails, so that a larger surface area could push the strings into the soundboard to create the sound. There's a limit to how hard this push can be before the strings clang together: the priority was roundness and a full sound rather than absolute volume. In the same way, strings at the octave were always used together, the higher octave just adding a bit of brighter colour to the lower. Low gut strings could be a bit dull, so this enabled the bass to project, especially when used as an open resonating string.

The wooden pear-shaped construction was designed to interact with what were often wooden music rooms, either in domestic houses or in wooden theatres or courtly rooms in a professional context. So to create sound, the instrument "caught" this acoustic. Modern guitars have this resonance built in, so things like using open strings and what key you are in are not so crucial. Older instruments were designed to be uneven in this respect - given that the "home" key with most open strings is G and Gminor, keys like G, C, F and Bflat with plenty of open string resonance will sound fuller and richer than those where the strings are mainly stopped, like the 'sharp' keys of A, D, Eminor, Bminor etc. (Guitarists on the other hand love these keys and 'home' for them is Emajor/minor.) Sometimes a muffled stopped sound is desirable, and songs in these remote keys do exist to create a particular emotional affect: Dowland used Aminor for particularly dark melancholic songs. So to summarise: if you want loud sounds find open strings; for interior monologues find dark stopped chords.


Some lute songs made use of polyphonic lines, others were more simple and chordal, and a lot went between the two. Most effective is to create a variety. Unlike keyboard composers, lute composers didn't feel they had to stick to the same number of parts all the way through. Sometimes Dowland has four parts for a bar or so, then drops to two, then writes big six-part chords for a cadence, for example. A separation of treble and bass works well. The top string was known as the chanterelle or "singing" string; often being single, it means a melody could sing out above lower basses. Closely-spaced chords on the lower courses tend to sound muted. As lute strings decay quite quickly, slow moving, spaced out notes will result in quiet music, while faster moving passagework can produce louder effects.

Finger span and technique

As a general rule, one finger per fret is the normal stretch, so if the first finger is on the first fret, the fourth will be comfortable on fret four, but could stretch to fret 5. 'Bar' chords are where the first finger stretches over several strings at once: this can be any number from 2 to 6, and is useful for big chords higher up the neck, as well as for sliding chord shapes up and down the neck, if no open strings are needed.

Many lute pieces and songs have melodic figures played by the thumb and index finger like plectrum technique. Scales and figures like these tend to run up and down the fingerboard, as they liked the sound (and the drama!) of a hand moving up the neck. Whereas guitar players use mixed scales on different strings, each course of the lute has a more different sound and character, so moving up and down on the same course is logical, even if it sometimes means dropping other parts temporarily to get the effect. Tremolo effects can be done with thumb and index, and big chords strummed with the thumb or back of the first finger.

Harmonics at the octave sound fine, those and the fifth are very quiet, as a fingertip doesn't activate the string in the same way as a nail on a guitar, and "artificial" harmonics are inaudible!

These are some points about what sounds natural, but the point isn't to sound like old music, so do feel free to experiment with other sounds and techniques, bearing in mind the parameters.

Writing for voice and lute

The principles of word-setting, from guitar-based rock songs to German lieder, apply equally here: the poem's metrical structure will be apparent when reading it aloud, and you can reflect this in musical rhythm or go against it in a kind of counterpoint. One thing to bear in mind is that earlier texts tend to be quite dense in meaning, so for the singer anything that helps with their clarity of meaning will also help the emotional range of the song. Women's voices tend to be clearer text-wise in the middle of the range, going high for special effects rather than sitting in the high register.

Our two voices are mezzo-soprano Anna Starushkevych and tenor Nicholas Mulroy.

Anna is a mezzo-soprano which means she has a wide range from dark notes in the low register (A below middle C) to higher notes such as F an octave and a half above, though bear in mind that in female voices text is clearest towards the middle if there are many words to convey.

Nicholas Mulroy's range is a higher one. Extending upwards is better than sitting low around middle C-E, especially if you want loud effects.

In terms of balance between voice and lute, again variety is key: a voice singing uniform mezzo forte will overpower a lute more effectively than one singing sometimes fortissimo and other times pianissimo. This is because, once the audience has heard the lute clearly, it's easier to follow. So some songs have introductions or solo passages, and others even a capella moments. As above, the law of diminishing returns applies to single notes - they get quieter - so in forte passages bigger chords will support the voice better.

Elizabeth Kenny