Playing in two voices

Lesson 15: A first two-voice arrangement

Despite the small tonal range of the ukulele, playing two voices at once on a single ukulele works amazingly well. This is a great method for self-accompaniment which sounds fantastic with re-entrant tuning.

Playing in two voices means a lot of work for the right hand. Until now, only a single finger of the right hand had to perform an action at a time. From now, two fingers of the right hand will have to be able play melody notes at the same time.

At least, many two-voice arrangements are quite easy for the left hand.

Of course you can alternatively play these arrangements with two players on two ukuleles. This can be a great way to practice playing together.

Piece 23: Menuett (Robert de Visée)

In this piece the 2nd voice is really easy: It only consists of the notes D4 and G4 which are played on the 3rd and 4th string. The index finger of the left hand can be left on the 2nd fret of the 3rd string all the time. (Pay attention that it doesn’t tense up!) This second voice on the 3rd and 4th string should be played with the thumb of the right hand, while the 1st voice (on the 1st and 2nd string) should be played with the index and middle finger, using alternate picking.

This is the basic idea how to play this, however there are a few exceptions: Since we’re playing on an ukulele with re-entrant tuning, the 1st voice also makes use of the 4th string. For example, the 2nd note of the 1st voice is a G4, which should be played with the thumb on the 4th string. I also like to take some load off the thumb by using the index finger instead of the thumb at some places, for example at the very beginning of this piece, I’m playing the F4 of the 1st voice with the middle finger, and the D4 of the 2nd voice with the index finger.

As you see, efficient right hand fingering is essential for playing in two voices, so make sure to get it right!

Lesson 16: Some more words about musical expression

Right here I want to talk a bit about dynamics — that is: About changes of loudness within music. We’re playing music of different periods here, and some of these tunes are more in the category of early music like piece 23, while others are more in the category of classical music like piece 25.

  • Terraced dynamics: Early dance music like pieces 23 and 24 is usually very steady in tempo, but uses “terraced dynamics”. You can see that parts of these pieces are usually repeated. It is very common to play a part in a different loudness when repeating it. You could do it in a way that the repeat is played with lower loudness, so it sounds a bit like an echo.
  • Sound registers: Another thing you can do is to play the repeat with a different “sound register” of the ukulele. This can be achieved by plucking the strings at different positions of the ukulele. Playing near the bridge results in a sharp and distinct sound, while playing near the 12th fret results in a mellow, soft sound. Playing over the sound hole results in a balanced sound somewhere in between the two extreme positions.
  • Transitional dynamics: Classical music usually often comes with signs regarding expression. I don’t want to cover these here now, but in general classical music is often played with dynamic changes which occur in a continuous transition. Variations in tempo are also much more common than in early music. So you could say that this music lends itself well to be played emotionally.

You can try those things when playing the next two pieces. Piece 24 is a dance tune in the style of early music, while piece 25 is more in the style of classical music.

Piece 24: Bransle

I suggest to fret the first note with the middle finger instead of the index finger. You can slide it from fret 2 to fret 3 in the transition to the next bar. When playing the second part of this piece, this fingering will be especially helpful to get a smooth transition to the next bar.

Here is an old recording of this piece. Note that I didn’t use any dynamics here. You can do better than that!


Piece 25: Serenade

In the last two bars you can move the middle and ring finger in parralel on the fretboard: The middle finger on the 3rd string, and the ring finger on the 1st string.

Lesson 17: Let your fingers dance

As you may have noticed, playing in two voices works especially well with lively dance pieces. So let’s just go on with another dance piece and focus on playing it well.

Piece 26: Tanz

A few hints for playing this piece:

  • Use staccato to make the piece sound jumpy: At some bars (1,2,5,6,9,10,11) I’m playing the first note as staccato. This means I’m stopping the note right after plucking it by touching the string again with the finger that plucked the note, so there is a distinct “gap” to the next note. It is particularly effective that this is done simultaneously in both voices we’re playing. It’s important not to break the rhythm when doing so, since especially for dance music a steady rhythm is essential! You may wonder why these staccatos are not written out in the notation. In fact they weren’t written out originally, too. This is another tool of musical expression you can use to create a “jumpy” feel in the music you are playing, and I figured that it would work very well with this piece when I recorded it.
  • Use the thumb of your right hand to make life easier for your other fingers. When playing the bass notes with the thumb, your index and middle finger can play the treble voice with alternate picking.
  • There are a few far position changes. In bar 8, slide up to the 8th fret on the 1st string using the middle finger as guide finger. Listen to the faint sound of the finger sliding up on the string to get a feeling where to stop. Continue using the middle finger as guide finger in the next three bars.

Lesson 18: Using the sound registers

The mourisque is a wonderful renaissance piece that works really well for exploring the sound registers of the ukulele. You can achieve a different sound character by varying the position of your right hand. Try to pluck or strum between the sound hole and the 12th fret to get a warmer sound.  Play between the sound hole and the bridge to get a brighter, more distinct sound. Also try to adapt your playing to the sound you want to achieve: Play extra smooth with soft fingers for the warmer sound. On the other hand, for the brighter sound, play with a little bit more tension and volume.

27. La mourisque (Moor’s Dance)

This is a lively renaissance dance piece from Susato’s Danserye (which was published in the year 1551). It can be played effectively with drums beating and trumpets sounding, but it also works nicely on the ukulele. Use terraced dynamics in combination with sound registers, so you can play the repeats with a different sound character — almost like with a different instrument.

Originally this piece has four voices, but it really works well with only two voices too. Adding a bass and maybe even a 3rd voice with additional instruments can be very effective though (however this is not part of this lesson). Anyway, playing it with two voices on the ukulele is much more effective for achieving the desired extroverted character than an arpeggiated chord solo could be.

Some performance notes:

  • The very first notes are eigths, and really should be played with alternate picking on both voices:
    • Play the first simultaneous pair of notes with the index and middle finger of the right hand.
    • Play the following pair of notes with the thumb and the ring finger
    • The next pair of notes can be played with the index and middle finger again. Since these are quarters, you can continue with the index and middle finger from here.
  • Pay attention to the left hand fingering. Use the middle finger for fretting the 1st string at the 1st fret in bar 1, so you don’t have to lift the index finger from the 2nd string.
  • Use staccato again to make the piece sound more jumpy. (Which notes do you think are best suited for playing with staccato?)
  • In bar 11 (and 15) you can use a partial barré to fret the 1st string, so you don’t have to lift any fingers here.
  • Although it is not denoted, this piece is usually played in the form AABBAA. This means: You play part one twice (one repetition), then you play part two twice, and then you play again part one twice.

28. Mittelalter-Melodei

The next piece is optional, play it if you feel like trying it, but it’s not necessary.

In music theory there’s often a ban on consecutive fifths. However, this is something that wasn’t known in early music. So this was a motivation for me to compose a little piece with lots of consecutive fifths. This resulted in a somewhat medieval character, so I called it “Mittelalter-Melodei” (medieval melody).

Here is a really old recording of this piece: