Hierarchy of Musical Skills

Here is a basic hierarchy of musical skills presented with the simplest (rhythm) at the foundation.

This book looks at the very basics of expressing Rhythm, Technique, Melody and Harmony on the guitar with a view to Performance. My other publications look at repertoire and improvisation in detail by analysing specific pieces.

Hierarchy of Musical Skills

  • Performance - Share your stories with other people.
  • Improvisation - Make up stories.
  • Repertoire - What kind of stories do you want to tell?
  • Harmony - Voices singing together.
  • Melody - Sing a tune with your voice or on the guitar.
  • Technique - Express musical thoughts on your instrument.
  • Rhythm - Movement in sound.

This hierarchy of skills is a useful way to compartmentalise the study of musical performance and I have used it as the organisational structure of this book, progressing through Rhythm to, Technique, Melody, Harmony, Repertoire, Improvisation and Performance.

The Skills explained

Performance - Share your stories with other people

To perform you need a Repertoire. A performance can take place with an audience of one. Without emphasis on performing, music students can spend decades waffling about with not-quite-ready pieces and miss out on the ultimate satisfaction of sharing their passion and interest with others.


Make up stories.
How do you improvise? Improvisation is not a special or unique gift, every person improvises, every day. Do you always brush your teeth exactly the same way each day? Perhaps you do. Try varying the routine a little, begin on the opposite side of the mouth, or with the lower instead of the upper teeth. This conscious variation of a known routine is improvisation. Put another way, improvisation is telling a familiar story a little bit differently to the last time you told it. To improvise, or tell musical stories in an interesting way you need first a Repertoire. Then you juggle the basic ingredients of the story: Rhythm, Melody and Harmony.


What kind of stories do you want to tell? Music is expressed in styles and genres, each of which demands attention to detail and familiarity with its conventions.

Here are just a few examples of genres and sub-genres:

Popular music
Country music, Western Swing, Rock, Pop, Folk, Dance, Musical Theatre
Medieval, Renaissance, Baroque, Classical, Romantic, Impressionism, Nationalism, 20th Century, Serial, Aleatoric
Dixieland, Swing, Latin, Bebop, Cool, Acid Jazz, Fusion

Repertoire development can begin at the first lesson with, for example "Twinkle, Twinkle Little Star" played on one string (as shown in this book) as the first part of a 5 tune Nursery Rhyme medley. These short tunes can be easily memorised over the first month or so and then the student has a 2min 30 sec performance piece which they can play the rest of their life, adding polish and content as they grow musically. Perhaps even working up to playing some of Mozart’s variations on the tune! Repertoire is explored more fully in Chapter 8, however it is not the focus of this book.

There is an unlimited amount of repertoire already published, this book aims to give you the tools to be able to play all that repertoire.


Voices singing together. The guitar belongs to that smaller group of instruments which can create harmony, with two, three, four or even six voices sounding together. The largest family of harmony producing instruments is the keyboard family, and the guitar has the expressive qualities of the string family as well as the harmonic abilities the keyboard family.


Sing a song on the guitar. Most instruments are melody instruments, playing one note at a time. The guitar is capable of very expressive and fluid melody playing, having much in common with the string family (violin, viola, cello, contrabass).


Technique is best defined as the ability to express musical thoughts on your instrument. No less, no more. Anything that doesn't help you get your message across can be discarded. That still leaves plenty to do! The technique you want to develop also depends on what kind of story you want to tell on the instrument (what style of music).


Rhythm is the source. Musical rhythm is movement in sound. It has analogues with movement in architecture and art, except that music has the added dimension of movement in time. Just in this respect alone music can claim to be the art form that most closely relates to the experience of being human.

This is an excerpt from Guitar Playing and how it Works:

Guitar Playing and how it Works
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