The Life and History of a Scholarly Culture

The Life and History of a Scholarly Culture:

A speculative view of flamenco harmony and its application


Dr. Corey Whitehead and Javier Alcantara-Rojas




CAREFULLY, one must venture into the realm of flamenco history, and harmony is even more treacherous. Much has been written and even more remains unwritten in this principally oral culture, where much secrecy remains and information is guarded. Nevertheless, it is a culture that requires study and speculation in a scholarly pursuit that manifests itself in performance; for flamenco is indeed a scholarly culture. One must study it as a scholarly pursuit in order to establish a base of knowledge upon which to relate all extraneous additions to the art and to understand their place in popular flamenco culture and in the culture of the art of flamenco.There are two musical paths an artist can take, the path that pleases the “artist”, and the path of the “worker” that gives credence and life to the Art and Culture of Flamenco. Both are valid, and middle ground may be found between them, but the flamenco must be a “worker” to be the one who is true to the art. The former is a path that follows what pleases the artist, and the latter requires that the “flamenco” (singer, dancer, instrumentalist) not immediately follow what pleases them, but to struggle through the work required to learn to appreciate, assimilate, and master what does not immediately taste good to the “flamenco.” With hard work and understanding these formerly difficult and maybe initially unsavory elements will become a savored delicacy by the “flamenco.” Therefore leading one on a “camino” towards being a “flamenco” with complete understanding of all palos in the art of Flamenco. A line of demarcation has been demonstrated to us and instilled in us by Maestro Manolo Sanlúcar, and it is with careful steps that we now will try to paint one viewpoint of the speculative history of flamenco harmony.  In order to do this we must paint with broad strokes but careful as its history is still being written.

How many men knew their knowledge would change history?

WE OFTEN WONDER what it must have been like for Galileo Galilei (Astronomer, Scientist, Polymath) when he was at home with his father, Vincenzo Galilei, a lutenist and music theorist, watching the vibrations on a string. Could they have imagined then that from these experiments, both he and his father would go up against Ecclesiastical authorities in their works, respectively? Galilei, on our position in the universe and Vincenzo, on our understanding of the very nature of our Ecclesiastical musical system (the one we currently use to this day). Through diligent study and hard work they had recognized elements in writing and observation that did not confirm to their own observations and beliefs. We will leave Galileo, since he is the more famous of the two for obvious reasons, and focus instead on the father, Vincenzo.

In 1581, Vincenzo Galilei published Dialogo della musica antica et della moderna (Dialogue on Anicent and Modern Music), in which he published:

“… Among so many excellent men who have written on the musical discipline since Guido of Arezzo, not casually but as professors of music, there has been no one, as far as I know, who has determined which species of diatonic we compose and sing today without running into a thousand difficulties and contradictions. Nevertheless, I consider this among the principle very most important things that we need to know. I cannot help blushing when I think of the little understanding that is found generally among modern practitioners about things that they handle every day, whose power and nature they make a profession of knowing and understanding exceedingly well, content to be respected as such by lay multitudes, a blot with which I, too, find myself stained. I greatly desire to correct this deficiency with your help.”1Vincenzo was pleading about the fact that the Ecclesiastical church modes were wrong in their system of naming from the names of the Ancient Greeks and it was a mistake to continue teaching them as such. His teacher, Gioseffo Zarlino (principal Ecclesiastical music theorist), was incorrectly writing on the modes, as they were to be codified into our modern system by Zarlino and succeeding generations, and Vincenzo wished to shed some light on this fact. Much like his son, Vincenzo would have to wait his turn as history would prove to be the ally of Zarlino, and to the greatest success, obviously; but, could we be missing something.

Interesting Ideas

Manolo Sanlúcar

Manolo Sanlúcar

IN THE HOT JULY MONTHS, in Spain, the city of Cordoba transforms itself and pays homage to a six-stringed instrument. It is here that you can find Manolo Sanlucar, along with Jose Antonio Rodríguez, Paco Serrano, and Manolo Franco teaching “Naturalezay Forma de la Guitarra Flamenca” or “Theory and Form of the Flamenco Guitar.” It is only in Cordoba, with its rich cultural heritage of Jewish, Christian, and Islamic traditions, where one can learn from Maestro Sanlúcar that the Andalucian Cadence2 serves as an identifying marker which reveals the rich and deep cultural heritage of flamenco and its greater significance in Western Culture.Manolo Sanlúcar explains this speculative Flamenco Harmony from the position that flamenco does not begin with the Ecclesiastical “C” major mode (or Ionian) but instead from what we in West would call “E” Phrygian. In addition, in flamenco the “E” Phrygian descends instead of ascends as in the Ecclesiastical tradition. Maestro Sanlucar, based on his knowledge of flamenco, speculates that this flamenco system is not Ecclesiastical in its nature but ode to an older system.

The Greek Greater Perfect System

THE GREEK GREATER PERFECT SYSTEM of Aristoxenus of Tarentum (late 4th century BCE) is one point in the codification of the Greek Greater Perfect theoretical system. This system used the kithara (a stringed instrument, more like a harp than a guitar) 3 tuned to the characteristic octave of “E”4 and descending in its intervallic structure of: T T S T T T S.5 This is the exact same use in flamenco.Because of this obvious similarity, Maestro Sanlúcar teaches the name of the modes from the Greater Perfect System (thus, in music, retaining a more truthful representation to the birth place of Western Culture than even we today):

E Dorian

D Phrygian

C Lydian

B Mixolydian

A Hypo-Dorian

G Hypo-Phrygian

F Hypo-Lydian

E Hypo-Mixolydian

Flamenco is related to Ancient Greek Music?

MAESTRO SANLÚCAR has often been the criticism of academics within Spain (even within Córdoba we would hear rumors that Professors of Music from the Córdoba Conservatory would laugh at the ideas of Maestro Sanlúcar) who have been quick to note the tremendous influence of Ecclesiastical musical traditions which have influenced Spain and even flamenco music itself in the form of the cantes chicos. Maestro Sanlúcar is equally quick to point out that it is within the cante hondo, the oldest forms in flamenco, that these forms exist in a purer form and ALL of the hondo forms exhibit ONLY the Andalucian cadence. Nevertheless his ideas have been greeted with hostility within certain cultural and musical circles (facing hostility in much the same way as the Galilei clan).Critics in and out of Spain will often offer the following two arguments most frequently. They say that: 1) one could not possibly know what music sounded like in ancient Greece and that: 2) They argue (assuming the assertion that Flamenco music comes from Greek culture for the sake of argument), “How can one say that this system in flamenco is Greek, and also exhibits Occidental tertian harmony and extended harmonic concepts that are similar to those found in jazz music?”To answer this argument in two parts, (first addressing the primary argument) one only has to look to the remote villages of Greece, modern Macedonia, and Andalucia to find Greek culture preserved. In remote areas of Greece and Macedonia, according to Apostolos Paraskevas, music remains much as it has for more than 2000 years. People are born to these villages and either leave or die there where they were born. No outside influence is present in many such places without any modern forms of communication widely present. This is also true in remote parts of Andalucia, where the Arabs settled and in their own Art, exhibited preservation of Greek culture, indirectly influencing the Culture and Art of Flamenco. And, even more, there are direct remnants of Greek culture and evidence of Greek inhabitation of parts of Andalucia, including Greek Temples and Greek blood flowing through the veins of the inhabitants of certain remote villages. And even more, listen to modern Greek music, or to a wedding reception at a certain Greek restaurant next door to the club named Alegrias in Long Beach, California, or anywhere for that matter, and you will hear the roots of flamenco manifested and preserved in modern Greek culture.In order to answer the second point of criticism: with respect to tertian harmony in flamenco. The Greeks understood and professed the “Overtone series” or “Harmonic series” that is innate in any single pitch, producing numerous notes above (and below) the sounding pitch. The presence and amplitude of these overtones vary from instrument to instrument and from voice to voice, these differences in presence and amplitude of “harmonics” or “overtones” is what produces a different “timbre” or sound quality between say a violin and a clarinet, or between an afila flamenco voice and a redonda flamenco voice. When a singer (cantaor) produces the first or last note of the cante, for example on the note “E”, an E major chord is present in that single note. And conversely, when the cantaor sings the fourth note of the scale “A”, he or she will produce inflections that are above or below the fourth note that exhibit the sound of an A minor chord. This is inherent in the cante. Many critics would say that if the first assertion is true (that a single note produces the sound of a major chord) then the argument in favor of the validation of the Andalucian cadence is false (because a “minor” harmony is required on the fourth note of the scale, and the overtones dictate a major chord if allowed to sound for any length of time, therefore contradicting the requirement at that point in the system). But singers do not sit still on the fourth note of the scale, nor on the first note of the scale, except in certain places, usually reserved for the final note of a phrase. So the singer does counter the nature of the overtone series at times by singing a minor third above the root of a chord or tono.

On Jazz Idioms in Flamenco

ONE CANNOT DEFEND JAZZ idioms in the true art of flamenco, but can accept it according to the taste of the artist. However, one cannot call it true to the art flamenco, however valid the artists or the palo. However, there are harmonic idioms now commonplace in flamenco that sound similar to, or may be mistaken for jazz.

On Cantes Chicos

ON THE SUBJECT of cantes chicos, any may say to Maestros that, “…you play the cantes chicos on your flamenco records but say they are not true flamenco as the cantes hondos….” How can you justify playing the chico forms if you say they are not flamenco?” Many maestros say that one accepts these forms out of personal taste, respect to the audience and the culture that accepts them, and through Ida y Vuelta. And that Spanish people have colonized many places and brought Spanish music to those shores. In return, many things have come back…Rumba, Guajira, Columbianas, Vidalita, and maybe…Jazz?Equally, to be considered is that both the Ecclesiastical and flamenco traditions claim heritage from the same source, Ancient Greek music, some more directly than others.

The Future of Flamenco?

California State University, Fresno

California State University, Fresno

T IS VERY IMPORTANT that the world of music in general but flamenco specifically, be widely and completely exposed to the arguments contained in this article, that stem from the struggle in flamenco that Manolo Sanlúcar, and others have been enduring; the struggle to have their art accepted in the Universities and Conservatories as a Fine Art for careful study and examination, not a Folkloric Art. Segovia is well known for fighting this battle in the world of "Classical" guitar. Manolo Sanlúcar and others are equally taking on this struggle for an entire art and culture. If everyone is engaged in this discourse, Flamenco will make the next step to become a Scholarly pursuit in Academia in all countries where the Art is prevalent.We were motivated by our Maestro, Juan Serrano, who to our knowledge, was the first to have flamenco established as a scholarly pursuit in a University where one could study flamenco and play a final recital or concert that is completely flamenco for completion of one’s degree requirements. This was established in 1983 at California State University, Fresno. Many people (as many as half) would say in this community, Fresno, and all around the world that the program or its content was not a valid scholarly pursuit. Maestro Serrano always exhibits profound grace (and elegant dress) and would never say a negative thing about anyone, even a critic, and would say something like this: "If half the people speak well of you (and/or your ideas, art or pedagogy) and the other half speak badly of you, then every one is talking about you. This is better than nobody speaking of you at all." This helped ignite the argument herein the U.S. that has been debated for so long in Spain and until this dayIndeed, it is because of individuals shining a light on long forgotten truths that we can plead our case for the history and traditions of this tremendous culture. It allows us to ask questions; such as, how can it be that the Ecclesiastical system wished to impose its theories, when its system is based on mistranslations and is a relatively young written music tradition? How does one go about trying to change Ecclesiastical music traditions? Manolo Sanlúcar, Vincenzo Galilei, and Galileo Galilei share more in common with history than at first glance. It is in this respect that people like Maestro Sanlúcar, Juan Serrano and others are addressing the concerns of Vincenzo Galilei. We should do heed to pay these men attention.Today, in Córdoba, with its rich history, is where the future of flamenco guitar and harmony is being formed as we breathe, where the stem of Ecclesiastical tradition is being challenged. It is only now, in this day and age, where the ideas of Maestro Sanlúcar can take hold and free themselves from the prejudices and actions of, in his words: “[certain] gatekeepers of culture.”6 It can only be now that in our truly global interconnected world people can begin to see the immense cultural value contained within flamenco.In the “New World,” and in the academic world, much still needs to be done to bring these facts to light, and currently we have finished translating Maestro Sanlúcar’s book “Sobre la guitarra flamenca. Teoría y sistema para la guitarra flamenca” (“On the Flamenco Guitar: Theory and System for the Flamenco Guitar”) into English. On the web, our new You Tube site “Flamenco Professor” has just gone live. We offer his method and explanation to an English speaking audience. In addition, we have given lectures at the American String Teachers Association (ASTA, 2008), published an article (Rosewood Review, 2007), and garnered grant monies ($10,000) to take groups of students to Spain for study with Maestro Sanlúcar in 2007.The future of flamenco depends on the actions of those in the present, those who are “workers” and in a true sense, apt to scholarly pursuits. Maestro Sanlúcar makes it known that the recognition and appreciation of this marvelous art form deserves respect in academic circles and within Spain itself, and the flamencos must be this as well. In this way flamenco will no longer be just some trinket to bring out every now and then but a key part of the rich tapestry that is the history of the Spanish peninsula and Western Culture in general. We here at Flamenco Professor wish to serve as a conduit for the English speaking masses and hope to shed more light on this fascinating art form which contains elements which are of preeminent value to the culture and history of the Western world. Hopefully, history treats us better than Vincenzo and Galileo.


Vincenzo Galilei,

Dialogue on Ancient and Modern Music

, trans and ed. Claude V. Palisca [London: Yale University Press, 2003], 10-11


The Andalucian Cadence is typified by the harmonic progression of: minor iv, Major III, Major II, and Major I; in addition, the note A, G, F, E. It would also be pertinent to note that the intervallic disjunct tetrachord of T T S is at the heart of the Andalucian Cadence.


It is rather curious that entomologically flamenco still use a similar instrument based on “E” with a system based on the Greater Perfect System.


The note here are being used in derived from the initial starting point of A and of which more info is talked about in our articleDr. Corey Whitehead and Javier Alcantara-Rojas, “The Speculative Theories of Manolo Sanlúcar on the origins and practical application of flamenco harmony”

Rosewood Review

, [September, 2007], 4-5,


T = tone of whole step; S = semi-tone or half step


Youtube interview:

(2:20). This whole interview should be watched to view the status that flamenco is viewed within Spain.