Flamenco is a Spanish musical genre with strong, rhythmic undertones and is often accompanied with a similarly impassioned style of dance characterized by its powerful yet graceful execution, as well as its intricate hand and footwork. Flamenco embodies a complex musical and cultural tradition. Although considered part of the culture of Spain in general, flamenco actually originates from one region: Andalusia. The roots of flamenco are not precisely known, but it is generally acknowledged that flamenco grew out of the unique interplay of native Andalucian, Middle Eastern, Sephardic, and Gypsy cultures.

Once the seeds of flamenco were planted in Andalucia, it grew as a separate subculture, first centered in the provinces of Seville, Cádiz and part of Málaga but soon spreading to the rest of Andalucia, incorporating and transforming local folk music forms. As the popularity of flamenco extended to other areas, other local Spanish musical traditions would also influence, and be influenced by, the traditional flamenco styles.

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Musical Characteristics


Flamenco music styles are called palos in Spanish and there are over 50 different palos flamenco, although some of them are rarely performed. A palo can be defined as the musical form of flamenco. Flamenco songs are classified into palos based on several musical and non-musical criteria such as its basic rhythmic pattern, mode, chord progression, form of the stanza, or geographic origin.

A palos must not be understood in a very strict way. It is rather a popular, sometimes inconsistent way of classifying songs according to similar characteristics. For example, to determine that a song belongs to the palo called Bulerías, only the rhythm is taken into consideration, no matter its mode or stanza. Fandangos, on the other hand, include a variety of forms in 3/4 or 6/8, but later it developed "free" forms (that is, with no determined rhythm). Most palos include dozens of traditional songs, while others like the serrana include only one song.

The rhythmic patterns of the palos are also often called compás. A compás (the Spanish normal word for either time signature or bar) is characterised by a recurring pattern of beats and accents.

To really understand the different palos, it is also important to understand their musical and cultural context:

  • The mood intention of the palo. Although palos are associated with type of feeling or mood, this is by no means rigid.

  • The set of typical melodic phrases, called falsetas, which are often used in performances of a certain palo.

  • The relation to other palos.

  • Cultural traditions associated with a palo (ie: men's dance - Farruca)

Some of the forms are sung unaccompanied, while others usually have a guitar and sometimes other accompaniment. Some forms are danced while others traditionally are not. Amongst both the songs and the dances, some are traditionally the reserve of men and others of women, while still others could be performed by either. Many of these traditional distinctions are now breaking down; for example, the Farruca is traditionally a man's dance, but is now commonly performed by women too. Many flamenco artists, including some considered to be amongst the greatest, have specialised in a single flamenco form.

Forms of Flamenco Expression

  Flamenco is a genuine Spanish art form. It exists in three forms:
  • Cante: the song (this is the heart of flamenco)

  • Baile: the dance

  • Toque: guitar-playing


The toque is the guitar-playing part of the art of flamenco.

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  Spanish Dancer by John Singer Sargent 1880 - 1881

Foreigners often think that the essence of flamenco is the dance.
However, the heart of flamenco is the song (cante). These cantes (songs) and bailes (dances) follow strict musical and poetic rules. The cante flamenco is part of the musical tradition in the Andalusian region of Spain, and traces its roots back to east Indian, Arabic and European Gypsy music. The verses (coplas) of these songs often are beautiful and concise poems, and the style of the flamenco copla was often imitated by Andalucian poets.

Cante flamenco can be categorized in a number of ways. First, a cante may be categorized according to whether it follows a strict rhythmic pattern ("compas") or follows a free rhythm ("libre"). The cantes with compas fit one of four compas patterns. These compas-types are generally known by the name of the most important cante of the group. Thus
  1. Solea
  2. Siguiriya
  3. Tango
  4. Fandango
There are many variants of cantes or palos (song forms), each expressing a unique emotion, which shares noticeable resemblance to the raga music of Northeastern India - one of flameco's distant relatives.

The flamenco songs of today may be classified into one of three categories: cante grande, cante intermedio or cante chico.

Cante Grande (also known as cante jondo): Meaning "profound" and "deep," this intensely sad form of cante deals with themes of death, anguish, despair, or religious sentiments and is sung
without guitar accompaniment

Cante Intermedio: Meaning "intermediate," this form is less profound but also moving, sometimes containing an oriental cast to the music.

Cante Chico: Literally meaning "little song," this form of cante sings of lighter subjects including love, bawdy humor and happiness to the accompaniment of the flamenco guitar. Festive forms of cante chico include forms such as the alegrias, bulerias and tangos.


El baile flamenco
is a highly-expressive solo dance, known for its emotional sweeping of the arms and rhythmic stomping of the feet.

While flamenco dancers (bailaores and bailaoras) invest a considerable amount of study and practice into their art form, the dances are not choreographed, but are improvised along the palo or rhythm.

In addition to the percussion provided by the heels and balls of the feet striking the floor, castanets are sometimes held in the hands and clicked together rapidly to the rhythm of the music, or clicking using just fingers. Sometimes, folding fans are used for visual effect.

Harmony and Melody

The Phrygian dominant scale is the most common in the traditional palos of flamenco music. It is often known as a Spanish Phrygian scale or Spanish Gypsy scale. It is constructed by raising the third of the Phrygian scale and is the fifth mode of the harmonic minor scale.

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  natural minor scale on A

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  harmonic minor scale on A

The sequence of steps comprising the Phrygian dominant scale is: 1 - b2 - 3 - 4 - 5 - b6 - b7 - 1
Beginning on E, the scale is as follows: E - F - G(#) - A - B - C - D - E  

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  Spanish Phrygian (Gypsy) scale on E

The flamenco version of this mode contains two frequent alterations in the 7th and, even more often, the 3rd degree of the scale: if the scale is played in E Phrygian for example, G and D can be sharp.

                                            Descending E Phrygian scale in flamenco music, with common alterations in parentheses

                                                    Descending E Phrygian scale in flamenco music,
                                                            with common alterations in parentheses.

In E Spanish Phrygian, a typical cadence (an ending sequence of chords in a progression) is formed, usually called the “Andalusian cadence.”
The chords for this cadence in E Phrygian are Am–Gmaj–Fmaj–Emaj.   

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  Andalusian cadence from A minor to E major

When playing using the Phrygian mode, guitarists traditionally use only two basic positions for the tonic chord:
and A.
However, they often transpose these basic tones by using a cejilla (capo).

There are also palos in major mode. The minor mode is less frequent and it is restricted to the Farruca , some styles of tangos and a few other palos. In general, traditional
palos in major and minor mode are limited harmonically to the typical two-chord (tonic–dominant) or three-chord structure (tonic–subdominant–dominant). However, modern guitarists have increased the traditional harmony by introducing chord substitution, transition chords, and even modulation.

Traditionally, flamenco guitarists did not receive any formal training, so they just relied on their ear to find the chords on the guitar.


Dionisio Preciado
established the following characteristics for the melodies of flamenco singing:
  • Microtonality: presence of intervals smaller than the semitone.
  • Portamento: frequently, the change from one note to another is done in a smooth transition, rather than using discrete intervals.
  • Short tessitura or range: The most traditional flamenco songs are usually limited to a range of a sixth (four tones and a half). The impression of vocal effort is the result of using different timbres, and variety is accomplished by the use of microtones.
  • Use of enharmonic scale: While in equal temperament scales, enharmonics are notes with identical name but different spellings (e.g. A flat and G sharp), in flamenco, as in unequal temperament scales, there is a microtonal intervalic difference between enharmonic notes.
  • Insistence on a note and its contiguous chromatic notes (also frequent in the guitar), producing a sense of urgency.
  • Baroque ornamentation, with an expressive, rather than merely aesthetic function.
  • The Phrygian mode (also called the Greek Dorian mode) in the most traditional songs.
  • Most styles express sad and bitter feelings.
  • Melodic improvisation: Although flamenco singing is not, properly speaking, improvised, but based on a relatively small number of traditional songs, singers add variations on the spur of the moment.
  • Apparent lack of regular rhythm, especially in the siguiriyas: the melodic rhythm of the sung line is different from the metric rhythm of the accompaniment.


is the Spanish word for metre and time signature. In flamenco, besides having these meanings, it also refers to the rhythmic cycle, or layout, of a palo or flamenco style. When performing flamenco it is important to feel the rhythm — the compás — rather than mechanically count the beats. In this way, flamenco is similar to jazz or blues where performers seem to simply 'feel' the rhythm.Flamenco uses three basic counts or measures: Binary, Ternary and the (unique to flamenco) twelve-beat cycle which is difficult to confine within the classical measure. There are also free-form styles, not subject to any particular metre.
  • Rhythms in 2/4 or 4/4. These metres are used in forms like tangos, tientos, gypsy rumba, zambra and tanguillos.
  • Rhythms in 3/4. These are typical of fandangos and sevillanas. Both of these forms originate in Spanish folk, thereby illustrating their provenance as non-Gypsy styles, since the 3/4 and 4/4 measures are the most common throughout the Western world but not within the ethnic Gypsy, nor Hindi musics.
  • 12-beat rhythms usually rendered in amalgams of 6/8 + 3/4 and sometimes measures of 12/8 in attempts to confine it within the classical constraints. The 12 beat cycle is fundamental in the soleá and buerías palos. However, the various accentuation differentiates these two. These accentuations don't correspond to the classic concept of the downbeat, whereby the first beat in the measure is emphasised. In flamenco, the different ways of performing percussion, including the complex technique of palmas (clapping) as essential form of percussion to help punctuate and accentuate the song and dance) make it hard to render in traditional musical notation. The alternating of groups of 2 and 3 beats is also common in the Spanish folk or traditional dances of the 16th Century.
They are also common in Latin American countries.12-beat amalgams are in fact the most common in flamenco. There are three types of these, which vary in their layouts, or use of accentuations:
  • The soleá
  • The seguiriya
  • The bulería
  1. soleá, within the cantiñas group of palos which includes the alegrías, cantiñas, mirabras, romera, caracoles and soleá por bulería: 1 2 3 4 5 6 7 8 9 10 11 12. For practical reasons, when transferring flamenco guitar music to sheet music, this rhythm is written as a regular 3/4. 

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      Pattern Soleá example

  2. The seguiriya, liviana, serrana, toná liviana, cabales: 1 2 3 4 5 6 7 8 9 10 11 12
    The seguiriya is measured in the same way as the soleá but starting on the 8th beat.

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      Pattern Seguiriya example


  3. The bulerías is the emblematic palo of flamenco, today its 12 beat cycle is most often played with accents on the 1, 4, 8, and 9th beats. The accompanying palmas are played in groups of 6 beats, giving rise to a multitude of counter rhythms and percussive voices within the 12 beat

The compás is fundamental to flamenco, it is the basic definition of the music, and without compás, there is no flamenco. Compás is therefore more than simply the division of beats and accentuations, it is the backbone of this musical form. In private gatherings, if there is no guitarist available, the compás is rendered through hand clapping (palmas) or by hitting a table with the knuckles. This is also sometimes done in recordings especially for bulerías. The guitar also has an important function, using techniques like strumming (rasgueado) or tapping the soundboard (Golpe). Changes of chords also emphasize the most important downbeats. When a dancers are present, they use their feet as a percussion instrument.

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