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Characteristics of Spanish Music

Strummed or plucked, the guitar is an iconic instrument  in Spanish music.
guitar strings image by Elena Koulik from Fotolia.com

Vivid, evocative, passionate and colorful--these are adjectives frequently used to describe the music of Spain. Spanish music is infused with rhythm due to the major influence of dance; the region of Catalonia alone is the source of over 200 traditional dances. Also, Spain's geographical position and history mean that its culture has absorbed musical traditions from Arab, Gypsy, Jewish, African and Greek populations. In the 20th century, flamenco musicians have revitalized their art with jazz and rock elements, yet still maintain their Spanish roots.

The Guitar

In 1674, Gaspar Sanz published his "Instrucciòn," a compilation of popular dances written for guitar. From the 17th century onwards, the guitar became Spain's most important folk instrument. In 1939, the composer Juan Rodrigo debuted his guitar concerto "Concierto de Aranjuez," which helped elevate the guitar's status as a classical instrument. Spain has produced great classical guitarists such as Andres Segovia and renowned flamenco guitarists like Paco de Lucia and Rafael Rigueni.

Dance Forms

Castanets are used to accompany many of Spain's traditional dances.
spanish castanets image by inacio pires from Fotolia.com

Spain's folk music and dance suffered during the regime of dictator Francisco Franco, who banned all regional music and dance in his attempt to forge a national identity. Following his death in 1975, Spain experienced a major resurgence in traditional music and dance. The jota is originally from Aragon, in the north of Spain, but is popular throughout the country. Couples dance with their hands raised above their heads, playing castanets. The muniera, or Miller's Dance, is from Galicia and Asturias in the northwest of Spain and is accompanied by bagpipes. Spain's most well-known dance, however, is the flamenco (from the Andalusion region). The flamenco is characterized by its heel-tapping and graceful movements of the hand and body.


Flamenco is Spain's most recognizable dance.
Flamenco1 image by Videovol from Fotolia.com

A major element of Spanish music is improvisation, creating music on the spur of the moment. As Annemarie Schuessler points out, the composer Enrique Granados was an excellent improviser and only reluctantly published his works in a definitive form. In the performance of flamenco music, both singer and guitarist are free to improvise phrases or falsetas (short variations) as they react to the mood of the piece. Flamenco artists also interact with their audience, who clap their hands and shout words of encouragement during the performance.


Spanish classical music underwent a period of nationalism in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. Composers championed the regional folk music and dances of Spain, such as the jota, fandango, habanera and seguidilla, and used these melodies and rhythms as inspiration. "Iberia," whose name refers to the peninsula containing Spain and Portugal, is a suite of piano pieces by Isaac Albeniz. The work is notable for its use of Spanish dance rhythms. Composers also used other Spanish art forms as inspiration. Granados based his piano suite "Goyescas" on the paintings of Francisco Goya.


The zarzuela is a popular form of light entertainment.

The zarzuela is an operatic form that is unique to Spain. It is a mixture of opera and theater, with both singing and spoken dialogue, often with a comic theme. One of the first examples appeared in the 17th century with Pedro Calderon's "El Golfo de las Sirenas" (1657). Its popularity declined in the 18th century, when it was forced to compete with Italian opera. The zarzuela, however, enjoyed a resurgence in the 19th century and today is popular throughout the whole of Spain.

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