The Lute Society: Beginners Lesson 45

Getting started with social music-making

  • Lesson 45 of our beginners lessons, by Lynda Sayce

Getting started with social music-making

Beginners’ lesson: Getting started with social music-making

At the suggestion of the Secretary, this lesson is mostly aimed at the many new members who took advantage of the society’s Early Music Shop package during the lockdowns, and who may now be wanting to venture out with their new lutes.

The lute is a satisfying self-contained solo instrument, but also a very versatile ensemble instrument, with an enormous repertory of duets, songs, ensemble pieces and music with basso continuo. As the musical world cautiously begins to open up again, many new players with 7 or 8 course starter lutes may now be looking to join in with some social music-making. Opportunities abound; you can find yourself a singer or lute duet partner via the society’s website, social media pages, or via other early music interest societies and groups. Informal playing days are often arranged, and advertised on the society’s media platforms. The various early music fora scattered around the country organise larger playing days, usually involving singers and other instrumentalists. Lots of music summer schools welcome lutenists for wonderful musical holidays. No-one wants the stress and disappointment of turning up to an event only to find that you can’t join in, so here we will look at some ways of preparing.

Firstly, learn how to tune quickly and efficiently. I suggest downloading a tuning app to your phone, so that you can tune independently, without needing to join a queue to tune to a keyboard instrument in a noisy room. I use Cleartune, but Pitchlab, Tunable and others are popular with professional colleagues. If your instrument is in a state which makes tuning difficult, get it fixed. Use the society’s website to find a luthier if your lute’s pegs or nut grooves need attention; you may be pleasantly surprised by how a small amount of work can transform a difficult instrument. If you are not comfortable changing strings or frets, either a luthier or a lute teacher may be able to help. The lute world is a friendly place - don’t be embarrassed to reach out for help.

Secondly, equip yourself with some ensemble repertory which you are comfortable to play. You can start with just a handful of easy lute songs or duets, but have something prepared and under your fingers before seeking out a musical partner or joining a playing day. Tutors at such events try to accommodate players of all levels, but you will get the maximum enjoyment from the event if you have prepared something yourself - and have copies for your musical partner. If you are a total beginner, many summer schools will make a big effort to accommodate you and this can be a wonderful and inspiring way to kickstart your lute-playing, but be sure to tell the course administrator and/or tutor that you’re a beginner!

Finally, I want to discuss notation. Professional lutenists have to read a huge variety of notations, perhaps more than any other instrumentalists, and this can be rather daunting to beginners. The access route to lots of social music-making is the ability to read staff notation and play a simple continuo part on your lute - even a 7-course lute has a large potential repertory of late 16th- and early 17th-century vocal and instrumental music with a continuo part. The advantage over a tablature part is that a very simple continuo realisation can still be effective, and it can develop as your technique improves.

The first step is to learn to read bass clef on your lute. I’m assuming here that you have the standard g’ lute of the early music shop’s package, with 7 or 8 courses. If you can’t yet read staff notation in any form, there are dedicated books available to help with this; this lesson specifically addresses reading bass clef on a G lute. Your open strings look like this in bass clef:

There is a choice of note for the 7th course (with different strings), whereas the 8 course lute will have both of these options (and the possibility of tuning these strings to other notes, for example dropping the low D to C). However, don’t worry about these at the beginning, just get familiar with courses 1-6. Now, fill in the notes between the open strings: the bracketed notes are the same notes ‘spelled’ differently in different keys - you use the same fret for them.

The next step is to put a root position chord with some of these bass notes; these are the commonest harmonies in early continuo, and are the default choices which are assumed when nothing else is indicated. You may see an accidental written above or below the bass stave; this indicates that the third of the chord is altered, to make a chord major or minor when the opposite would be expected.

To build these chords you add the third and the fifth notes of the scale above the bass note; for example, to build a G major chord above a bass G, you add b and d. You can add other gs as well, and you can double any notes in any convenient octave. It’s best to avoid having multiple thirds in your chord, but in the first instance just find a convenient chord shape which you can play comfortably. Don’t worry about playing big 6-note chords or full barrés. Note that you will need to know both major and minor forms of your root position chords (this affects the third only; the fifth is the same in both cases). Try not to get stuck with only one chord shape for each harmony, but explore some other fingerings; you will be able to join the chords together more smoothly if you have a choice. Here are some examples for some of the commonest chords. For continuo playing, as long as you keep the written bass note at the bottom of your chord (in whatever octave is convenient - you will see that I have changed a few in the examples), you can arrange the rest of the chord however it falls under your fingers. The following are all correct ‘realisations’ of these chords. Make sure you know - really know, without needing to stop and work it out - which chord you are playing. Lots of repertory is built on ground basses and repeating chord sequences, and it is not uncommon for playing events to include improvisation sessions where a tutor will shout out a chord sequence for everyone to improvise around. Knowing these basic chords is all you need to join in.

Secondly, learn some first inversions - these are the commonest harmonies you will need on some notes, such as f sharp, or c sharp. They will be indicated by a ’6’ above or below the stave, and to construct them you add the 3rd and the 6th above the written bass note. Again, learn a fingering which is easy to grab, and then explore some alternatives for it so you have a choice. Notes in your chords will be subject to key signatures, and any accidentals in the figures which are alongside a number (rather than standing alone) will affect the note indicated by that number: for example, #6 raises the 6th note above the bass. I have given just a few examples here, but you should now have the necessary information to work out others for yourself.

There is, of course, much more but once these basics are understood it is easy to gradually expand your knowledge of different chords and different keys.

To get you up and running quickly with some continuo playing, (and to make the learning process a lot less daunting), choose one key to start with, learn the main chords within it - usually the chords built on the 1st, 4th and 5th degrees of the scale - and then look for a few pieces in that key and learn to play the continuo parts. Your second key should be a related one, so you gradually build up your knowledge of harmonies which work together. Many 17th century pieces need only a handful of chords. If you find a figuring indication which you don’t understand, simply count up from the bass, including the bass note as ‘1’, to find the indicated note. A sharp or flat alongside a number indicates that that interval is flattened or sharpened; a slash through a number indicates that it is sharpened, as does a ‘+’ sign. Accidentals which are not alongside another number will apply to the third of the chord.

You should now be ready to start exploring some simple continuo, so here are some suggestions for repertory: you can find much of this material on, and from publishers such as Musedita, London Pro Musica, Musiche Varie, Ut Orpheus Edizioni, and many others.


After the ‘lute song’ era of Dowland & Co came an important generation of songwriters who put continuo parts to their songs. Composers include Robert Johnson, John Wilson (edition forthcoming from the Lute Society), Nicholas Lanier, Charles Coleman, Henry Lawes, etc. Continental repertory includes songs by Giulio and Francesca Caccini, Kapsberger, Monteverdi, Benedetto Ferrari, Frescobaldi, Sances, and many others.

Instrumental repertory: solo instrumental works (for violin, cornetto, recorder, etc) by Frescobaldi, Riccio, Castello, ensemble works with continuo by Salamone Rossi, Kapsberger, William Lawes, Thomas Simpson, William Brade, and many others. Masque music, ballets de cour, collections of dances and canzonas, etc. Basically anything written before approximately 1630 is playable on a 7 or 8 course lute, the harmonies are mostly straightforward, and this is a satisfying way to learn a bit of continuo. There will always be some pieces which either don’t suit the lute, or are beyond your current playing level. The solution to this is to take the initiative and arm yourself with some pieces you can play, and gradually develop your reading ability so you can join in with music provided by others. You will never regret spending some time learning this skill!

Lynda Sayce