El Maestro on Tactus: Luys Milán’s renaissance instructions for well-measured Tempo



Luys Milán’s (1536) book of music for the vihuela de mano entitled El maestro is the first collection of music for this renaissance instrument, tuned like a lute but shaped like a guitar and played similarly to the lute by plucking rather than strumming. It is also the first teaching book for any instrument, intended for complete beginners (a basic knowledge of singing from staff-notation is assumed) and structured progressively from the rudiments of tablature notation to elementary solo pieces, more demanding fantasias and dance-music, and song accompaniment in various styles.


Milán’s purpose is not only to teach how to play the instrument, but to show his students how to create their own fantasias in the formal contrapuntal style of the high renaissance. Right from the first example, his tientos (musical ‘essays’) are of the highest artistic quality, beautifully expressive as well as gramatically correct.


Of particular interest are his detailed comments for each piece, holding firmly to his declared priorities: tempo and tones. His renaissance ‘tones’ are the eight modal scales which define the ‘key note’, progressions and final cadence of each piece.

Freely available online, you can download the original print (full colour, high resolution, Spanish language and tablature) and also a transcription into staff notation, transposed for modern guitar (with some errors and omissions, without Milán’s tempo indications, with note-values halved or otherwise reduced) My recording, with Jordi Savall, is here, but it does not reflect my more recent research into Tactus.




Compas, mesura & ayre

In this post I analyse Milán’s remarks on Tempo, his highest priority. His Spanish terms are mesura (the ‘measuring’ of music in time); ayre (musical ‘feel’, rhythmic patterning, we might well translate this as ‘groove’); and (most frequently) compas. The significance of compas is broad, combining the philosophical concept of Tactus (the slow, steady pulse governing renaissance and baroque rhythm) with the practical, physical representation of that pulse as a down-up movement of the hand (or foot) and with the notation of the duration of a down-up pulse unit by the note-value of a semibreve and by a bar of tablature enclosed by bar-lines.



The pre-requisite for studying with El maestro is that the student should understand as a singer, how one must keep Tactus and Measure: basta que sepa cantando entender como se ha de traer el compas y mesura.

Tactus is the slow, steady underlying pulse, Measure is the sub-division of that slow pulse into all the various rhythmic combinations of differing note-values. Milán’s ygual compas is remarkably parallel to lutenist John Dowland’s insistence on the ‘equality of measure’ in his (1609) translation of Ornithoparcus’  (1515) Micrologus. 


It is also consistent with baroque lute/theorbo-player Thomas Mace’s (1676) Rule of Time-keeping, requiring ‘Exact, Equal, Constant, True and Even Motion… like the Balance of a good Clock… in all musical performances whatever’ read more, and with such theorists as Zacconi (1592), who characterised Tactus as r’egular, solid, stable, firm… clear, sure, fearless, and without any pertubation.’



Contrary to the present-day fashion for artistic freedom, Milán’s language (in common with most period sources) is strongly prescriptive. His oft-repeated formula is se ha de… – one has to: se ha de tañer con el compas – you have to play with the Tactus. This theoretical understanding and practical skill in maintaining steady Tactus should similarly be the pre-requisite for all modern-day HIP performances of renaissance and baroque music.

Milán begins with this essential requirement:  es menester que sepays que mesura y ayre se ha de dar a la musica – you need to know what measure and groove have to be given to the music. Pues sabemos que cosa es compas, vengamos a saber quantas de las sobredichas cifras entran en un compas: pues por esto se ha de saber el ayre y mesura – once we know what Tactus is, we can learn how many note-values fit into one Tactus: then from that you have to know the groove and measure.

In the detailed comments that follow, Milán’s starting assumption and ‘default setting’ is steady Tactus, maintained throughout the piece: ‘you have to play it all with an equal Tactus, without making any change’ – la [musica] aveys de tañer toda a un igual compas sin hazer mutacion.  That Tactus should be well-measured, neither very fast (rushed) nor very slow (spacious) – con un compas bien mesurado… ni muy apriessa  ni muy a espacio.  In practice, the Tactus is shown by a down-up movement of the hand or (more conveniently while playing) an up-down movement of foot, in steady time – El compas en la musica no es otra cosa … sino un alçar y abaxar la mano o pie por un ygual tiempo.

As notated in tablature, the combined up-down movement corresponds to the standard bar-length of a semibreve, so a single beat (either down or up) corresponds to a minim. This is consistent with many other sources, and in Spanish practice was referred to as compasillo. Milán shows one piece with bars of double length, which is a notational convenience designed to be easier on the eye, but seems to have no implications for the beat or the tempo.


Default Tactus: ‘ygual tiempo’ & ‘compas bien mesurado’


The ‘equality of measure’ characteristic of Tactus is certainly the default setting for any particular piece. This ‘equality’ probably continues between one piece and another across the whole repertoire, since Milán is careful to specify when any piece goes even slightly faster or slower. And it is these painstakingly described exceptions to the default tempo that make this vihuela book a crucial source for anyone working with renaissance music.

From the very outset, Milán is clear that the performer should not select their own tempo at will, but should respect the composer’s intentions. se ha de considerar en las siguentes fantasias la una: que se ha de tañer con el compas apressurado o espacioso como el auctor quiere – the first thing one has to consider in the following fantasias is that one must play with the Tactus fast or slow as the composer wants. [His second priority is to identify the tone].

The default setting for any given piece is an equal Tactus for the whole piece. But Milán asks for that Tactus to be selected (according to his wishes, not the performer’s whim!) within a range centred on ‘well-measured, neither very fast nor very slow.’


Milán’s range of tempo indications


compas a espacio – slow Tactus

compas bien mesurado– well-measured Tactus

compas algo apressurado – slightly fast Tactus

compas apressurado – fast Tactus

quanto mas se tañera con el compas apressurado mejor parecera – the faster the Tactus, the better

Note that it is the Tactus itself that goes slow, well-measured, slightly fast, fast or ‘the faster, the better’. The note-values within the Tactus can be anything from breve to quaver. The physical action of beating time with the hand makes even a small change of Tactus feel quite different – a different groove or ayre. And we can assume that even the biggest change of Tactus is distinctly less than a doubling/halving of tempo, since this could be better shown by halving/doubling note-values.

I suggest that Milán’s compas bien mesurado might be approximately minim ~ MM60, and that his other tempi would be subtle adjustments to that default setting. In the language of jazz, Milán’s apressurado could be ‘up-tempo’ and his a espacio ‘laid back’.

Milán states that compas batido (literally, ‘beaten’) means the same as apressurado (literally, ‘pushed’), i.e. ‘fast’.

Changes of Tactus within a piece

The reader should experience a frisson of shock at the above sub-heading: in the renaissance context of equal, steady Tactus ‘without any perturbation’, the idea of changing Tactus at all is surprising, and changing it within a piece is almost alarming. Milán recognises that to play like this ‘has litttle respect for Tactus or for most music’: it is appropriate only in a certain bravura style, tañer de gala, with long passages of fast notes, redobles, contrasted against slow harmonies, consonancias. 

This is musica con diversos redobles … y tiene mas respecto a tañer de gala, que de mucha musica ni compas – music with various fast notes… and it has more respect for bravura playing than for formal musical construction or Tactus.

Its particular style is tañer de gala con estos redobles largos – bravura playing with these long passages of fast notes.

The noun gala and its related adjective galana occupy an area of meaning that extends from ‘decorative’ or ‘elegant’ to ‘luxury’ or ‘ostentation’. Milán’s tañer de gala with its disregard for the normal rules of Tactus and musical structure would seem to be well towards the ‘showy’ end of this semantic spectrum, as suggested by my translation ‘bravura’.

Writing his own Arte de tañer Fantasia for keyboards and vihuela in 1565, Tomas de Santa Maria similarly emphasises steady Tactus in all music, and offers suggestions in Book 1, Chapter 19 for the ‘groove’ – buen ayre – of crotchets and quavers within the regular minim (semi-Tactus) beat. Crotchets always go long-short (i.e. good-bad), with the long crotchet on the Tactus beat. Quavers can go long-short, or short-long. This second style is only suitable for short passages of fast notes – glosas – but is much more galana (elegant) than the first. The third way is in groups of four quavers, short-short-short-long: this is suitable for long or short glosas and is the most galana (showy) of all. Perhaps Tomas’ third style would be appropriate for Milán’s tañer de gala. Whichever style is chosen, it should be maintained consistently through that particular glosa. More on Tomas de Santa Maria in another post.

Milán repeats many times and with small variations in wording his instructions for changing Tactus, but only in this context of tañer de gala – music which is like ‘trying out’ the vihuela, mixing harmonies with fast notes:  una musica la cual es como un tentar la vihuela a consonancias mescladas con redobles…

para tañerla con su natural ayre haveys os de regir desta maniera. Todo lo que sera consonancias tañerlas con el compas a espacio y todo lo que sera redobles tañerlos con el compas apriessa. ‘To play it with its natural groove, you have to rule yourself in this way: everything which will be harmonies you have to play with the Tactus slow and everything which will be fast notes you must play with the Tactus fast.’

Milán is quite specific that he asks for something beyond normal rhythmic accuracy – it’s not enough for him that the small note-values are faster notes anyway. He insists (many, many times) on changing the Tactus itself, so that the written contrast in note-values is exaggerated by the change in Tactus.

Modern performers might be tempted to interpret ‘fast’ as ‘twice as fast’, but this robs the listener of the sensation of a change of pulse, since the doubling of speed will be heard as halved note-values within the same underlying pulse. The shock of changing Tactus is greater if the change is noticeable, but small, and not proportional.

Similarly, modern performers might want to add accelerando or rallentando, but Milán does not suggest this, and again, the effect of an abrubt change is greater. I tell my students to

use the gear-shift, not the accelerator or brakes!

Milán is very clear that change of Tactus is only allowed in particular circumstances: Esta fantasia que sigue es de la misma arte de la passada fantasia tentando la vihuela con redobles y consonancias; y que vos he dicho de que manera y compas se han de tañer estas fantasias que mas propriamente se pueden dezir tentos – This fantasia that follows is in the same style as the preceding fantasia, trying out the vihuela with fast passages and harmonies: and I have told you in what style and Tactus you have to play these fantasias, which more properly might be called tientos [essays].

Y por esta mutacion de compas os dire que no la aveys de tañer como tañereys esta musica que de aqui adelante torna a proseguir la qual es como la del principio que la aveys de tañer toda a un igual compas sin hazer mutacion. And about this change of Tactus, I tell you that you must not play like that in the music that returns in the following pieces, which is like the pieces at the beginning, which you have to play all in an equal Tactus without making any change.


Technique & Phrasing

Milán distinguishes between two different techniques for playing fast notes. Both techniques produce an alternating pattern, but with different sound-quality: alternating two fingers dos dedos is considered more elegant than back-and-forth with a single finger dedillo, but particular melodic patterns suit one or the other technique.

y parar de tañer en cada coronado un poco – and stop playing a bit at each fermata mark.  This could be interpreted in the modern sense of breaking the time and waiting longer at the pause mark, but is more likely to imply creating a silence (literally, stop playing for a bit) within the notated value. This is consistent with the Rhetorical (i.e. word-based) principle of making the last note of the phrase ‘bad’, i.e. short/un-accented, and with period use of this sign (historically not a pause but signum congruentiae – the sign of harmonic resolution, the end of a phrase). More on good/bad notes here.

In the slow tempo that Milán requires, the vihuela’s final chord would need to be sustained for more than four seconds. There is little hope that a vihuela-player could prolong this even further, as a modern fermata: it is almost inevitable that the sound will stop before the notated duration – the usual situation for final notes in this period.



Some songs – romances – have similar passages of instrumental redobles between the vocal phrases, for which Milán suggests a variety  of performance options. The passages in fast notes can be omitted entirely, or the song can be performed with two different Tactus speeds, in the bravura tañer de gala style described for those particular fantasias. han se de tañer lo que fuere consonancias a espacio, y los redobles que ay a las finales quando acaba la boz muy apriessa – it has to be played with the harmonies slow, and the passages at the end of phrases when the voice stops very fast.

For the first romances in the book, Milán requires the singer to sing llano – plain, sustained – whilst the vihuela shouldn’t go very fast, nor very slow: la vihuela ni ha de yr muy apriessa ni muy a espacio. This might rule out the tañer de gala approach, or it might be an instruction applying to the vocal episodes only.

For each vocal genre, there are specific instructions song-by-song for the differing roles of singer/instrumentalist. Sometimes the singer may improvise ornamentation whilst the vihuela plays slow chords, and sometimes the voice is ‘plain’ and the instrument has discanto – counterpoint.

The alternative version of the first villancio has the instruction: el cantor ha de cantar llano y la vihuela algo apriessa – the singer has to sing plain and the vihuela slightly fast. Note that this is not an instruction about the compas (Tactus), it clarifies the different levels of activity in the voice-line and instrumental-part respectively. Singer and vihuela must keep the same Tactus (of course!), but within that Tactus there can be various levels of activity.

Similarly, the second villancio has the instruction: el cantor puede hazer garganta y la vihuela ha de yr muy espacio – the singer can make throat-ornamentation and the vihuela has to go very slowly. This song also has an alternative version with the singer llano and the vihuela apriessa.

For the first soneto (sonnet), Milán writes that the singer can add some trills- algun quiebro – whilst the vihuela goes at moderate pace. Other sonnets have similar instructions: el cantor glose donde huviere lugar con la boz y donde no cantar llano – the singer ornaments where he has an opportunity with the voice, and otherwise sings plain. El cantor ha de cantor llano. Y donde cabera glosar con la boz sea quiebro o trinar que dizen – the singer has to sing plain. And where it fits, to ornament with the voice, which should be quiebros or trills as they are called. The last sonnet has to be played algun tanto regozijado – with rather much rejoicing.

It’s worth noting that Milán distinguishes carefully between different genres – Spanish or Portuguese villancico, Italian soneto and the romance.  Each genre has its own performance practice. Milán leaves no doubt that romances are a special case, and the fast instrumental solo passage-work within them has to be treated differently from the rest of the song: lo que de musica se sigue despues de las finales es para solo tañer y ha de callar la boz donde acaba la cifra colorada – the music which continues after the end of phrases is instrumental only and the voice has to be silent where the coloured notation ends.


The Italian Pavan is also a particular genre with its own performance style. Milán presents 4 of his own compostions, and 2 Italian melodies set by him for the vihuela. The first pavan-like fantasia se ha de tañer ni muy a espacio ni muy apriessurado: sino con un compas bien mesurado has to be played neither very slow nor very fast, but with a well-measured Tactus. el ayre della remeda al ayre de las pavanas que tañen en ytalia – Its groove resembles the groove of the Pavans that are played in Italy.

The Pavans that follow are to be played with a slightly fast Tactus, algo apressurado. Milán asks for this dance-music to be played two or three times through. The last Pavan is in triple metre (often found in Spain, not in Italy) with the [slow, sesquialtera] proportion of three semibreves.



Milán shows two triple-metre proportions, notated with three minims to the bar and three semibreves to the bar. We can observe the notated bar-lengths of Milán’s two proportions, but there is no explanation of how to measure those triple-metre bars in time, i.e. with the hand-movement of the Tactus.

Most of the pieces (in common time), and the examples of proportions in the introduction, have no mensuration sign (time signature) at all. For changes between duple and triple metre, Milán uses these signs without explanation:


The modern reader might well wish that the Maestro would have distinguished more clearly between the inter-linked concepts of compas as bar-length, hand-movement and time-duration.  But whatever significance might be read into the mensuration signs, the musical content seems to argue against the hypothesis of  “bar = bar” as a universal rule for linking compas as notated bar-length to compas as time-duration/Tactus. A large variety of rhythms, including short note-values, is found in Milán’s proportion of 3 semibreves to the bar; whereas the episodes in 3 minims to the bar are almost entirely in the jig (canario) rhythm of dotted minim, quarter, minim. This suggests a fast proportion for 3 minims (tripla, 3 minims to one tactus beat, 6 minims to the complete down-up cycle: minim ~ MM180), and a slow proportion for 3 semibreves (sesquialtera, 3 semibreves to two tactus beats = the complete down-up cycle: semibreve ~ MM 90).

This would be consistent with what appears to be Monteverdi’s practice in the early 17th-century: read more.




For certain pieces, Milán asks for the 4th fret to be adjusted. Alçareys un poco el quarto traste de la vihuela para que el punto del dicho traste sea fuerte y no flaco – raise the 4th fret a bit so that the stop at this fret might be strong and not weak. This appears ambiguous: which way is ‘up’? Moving a fret towards the bridge raises the pitch of the note and might seem to be Milan’s meaning. But when he repeats the instruction later for a song accompaniment, he clarifies: haveys de alçar el quarto traste un poco hasta las clavijas de la vihuela – you must raise the 4th fret a bit towards the tuning-pegs. This has the effect of lowering the pitch of the stopped note, which is what we would expect for the sharps and hard-hexachord notes on this fret in the meantone temperament typical of the period.


From a History of Emotions perspective, it is interesting that the low (i.e. in-tune) major third is characterised as fuerte, and the out-of-tune high third (characteristic of modern Equal Temperament) is ‘flaccid’.