Unlocking Carcassi’s Dynamics

Want to really learn how to interpret 19th century music? Carcassi is extremely precise about his dynamics. Sor and Giuliani are less so. By examining and thinking critically about what Carcassi does, you can get general ideas about how to shape a line and deal with appoggiaturas or other musical elements.

This is meant to be practical advice. I’m not trying to teach you how to feel about a piece, that’s none of my business. Some things always work well in making interpretive decisions; Carcassi lays a few of them out.

Etude No. 2

From Twenty Five Studies, Op. 60

Carcassi begins with a mezzo-forte dynamic marking: a good strong sound. As the melody line ascends he indicates a crescendo. The loudest part of the first phrase is on the high C, which Carcassi marks Forte. From there a diminuendo is indicated as the line falls back to the original pitch level and closes the first four-bar phrase (1, 3).

The dissonant dominant chord (third inversion) in measure five, beat one is marked with a sforzando (an accent), followed by a diminuendo (hairpin) into its resolution, the tonic chord in first inversion, on beat three. This is especially critical: the dissonant chord is played louder, then relaxes into its resolution. That, my friends, is how to play an appoggiatura (dissonance on a strong beat followed by a weak beat resolution), which is what this entire chord functions as. Carcassi is literally showing the student how to interpret appogiaturas, then loads the entire next study with appogiaturas in the melody. (Study No. 3, m. 1, beat 2 into 3. The F# to E is an appoggiatura, F# loud, followed by a diminuendo into the E. Similar examples are found throughout the study.) Carcassi then continues study number two with another dominant-function chord (the viio chord in first inversion) in measure six, beat 1. The dissonant dominant is accented again, and relaxes into the quieter tonic resolution on beat three (2).

As the section winds down, Carcassi’s indicates a louder dynamic followed by a diminuendo (hairpins again) into a quiet ending at measure eight (3). There is not ritard indicated, though a bit of one could be put in.

A look at the B section of this etude reveals similar devices in use. The crescendo to the high note in measures 19-20 (1). The accented dissonant chords followed by soft resolutions in measure 15, beat three into measure 16, beat one — again in measures 19 and 20 (2). The B section ends quietly at measure 16; and the piece ends quietly (3) where a rallentando is indicated.


see in the above citations

  1. Lines should crescendo as they ascend. As the melody descends, it diminuendos.
  2. Dissonant chords are loud, and relax into their resolutions. Dissonant notes are also louder than their resolutions (as in the appoggiaturas over a harmony found in Etude No. 3, which, I might add, Carcassi carefully indicates with a diminuendo into each resolution).
  3. Ends of phrases are quiet, with a bit of tempo decrease.

Do these generalizations work all the time?

Nope. Sometimes it sounds incredibly good to break the, “rules.” But knowing some general guidelines for interpretive decisions does help.

Carcassi is a good place to start because he’s so precise with his dynamics. Modern editions of his studies (such as the one found at the Classical Guitar School website) are doing students a disservice by leaving out his expressive markings. Critical thinking and analysis of the why behind Carcassi’s expressive markings can yield some very useful discoveries.

Posted on in Musical Interpretation and Musicianship


  • Bradford Werner

    With classical music, when in doubt: sing the line! Even if you’re playing arpeggios, find something to sing and your natural instincts will take over. Also, listen to classical era music on strings and piano-forte for a model.

    Nice post guys.