Renaissance Lesson: Branle Gay

In this video CGC Team member Nicoletta Todesco gives you a lesson on a fun Renaissance dance, Branle Gay by Jean-Baptiste Besard. This piece comes from our book Exploring the Renaissance and course of the same title at CGC Academy.

Be sure to download a free PDF of the sheet music so you can follow along!


A branle was a lively dance with a chain of dancers that formed a circle. This “gay” branle implies that it should be cheerful and boisterous. Most branles feature a fast and catchy melody with a simple accompaniment. This branle is no different: it has a catchy and fast melody with a pedal-tone accompaniment. Thus, we need to play it pretty fast to capture the right feel.

Drop-D Tuning

Because the pedal tone in this piece is D, you need to tune the sixth (lowest) string down a whole step from E to D. This gives a rich and resonant sound to the guitar. We will only play open (and no fretted) notes on the sixth string in this piece, so it makes it rather simple and serves as a great introduction to Drop-D tuning.

During the Renaissance there were many different kinds of lutes. And one popular lute was the seven-course lute. The lowest “course” (a pair of strings, usually in unisons or octaves) on the seven-string lute was tuned one whole step below the sixth and thus opened up a lower range for the instrument than we can have on our modern guitar. To play music originally written for the seven-course lute, we thus have to tune our sixth string down a whole step.

Dorian Mode

In each phrase in this piece, which has four main phrases of six measures each, we hear the same notes from a particular scale. But this scale sounds odd to our modern ears. And this is because Renaissance music did not use harmony that we get from the Baroque period. Instead, it uses modes. The mode in this piece is built around a feel of D minor, but it does not use the D minor scale. D minor has Bb in the key signature. And typically in modern music we would play a D minor harmonic scale, which features a raised leading note (in the case of D minor, the raised leading tone is C#).

However, in Dorian we have a raised sixth scale degree (B natural in D Dorian) and often we will not have a leading note (thus C natural in D Dorian). Nonetheless, we do sometimes see C#’s in this piece and we also get a Bb in measure 22. Composers of this time would add in accidentals like this for color and to create certain pleasing resolutions.

You can play the notes of D Dorian to get familiar with it: D-E-F-G-A-B-C-D. Play the scale and even improvise on it to get used to that modal sound.

Separate Voices

A great way to learn this piece is to isolate the voices and play them by themselves. Start with the upper melody. Once you do, you’ll really want to focus mostly on the right hand.

Make a Plan for Your Right Hand

Because we need to play at a pretty fast tempo, it’s important that you not repeat right-hand fingers. So it’s a good idea to plan out your right-hand fingerings with clear alternation. This will allow you to play the melody with a nice flow and at a pretty fast tempo. We have provided some fingering options for the right hand in a few places that will avoid awkward string crossings and ensure good alternation in the right hand.

“Feel It in 1”

This is dance music and so connecting with the rhythm and feel is important. While the music is written in a 3/4 time signature, we want to feel the music not with three beats per measure but in one big beat. What does that mean?

It means that we want to give a clear accent at the beginning of the measure, but not on the upbeats that follow. Think of it like this: ONE-2-3, ONE-2-3. No matter how fast you go, try to feel it in one, which helps give a strong dance feel. If you have a metronome, you can set it to have a different sound on the first click than the following two beats so you know where to put each accent.

Tricky Rhythms

We have some ties that go across measures in some places. Practice these spots with the metronome so you know when to start on the upbeat with your melody line. For example, at measure 6-8 there are several ties to look out for. If you use subdivision (setting the metronome to eighth notes), it can really help you feel these passages clearly.

There is also a dotted rhythm in measure 13. Because it is the only dotted rhythm in the piece, we really want to emphasize it. Again, try this with the metronome to get a clear feel for this spot.

We hope you enjoyed this lesson on Branle Gay by Jean-Baptiste Besard from our Exploring the Renaissance book and course!

Exploring the Renaissance Book

CGC Exploring the Renaissance

Exploring the Renaissance: 46 Dances, Songs, and Instrumentals for Classical Guitar

This book offers an exploration of Renaissance music specifically for the classical guitarist. The music that follows all comes from sixteenth- and seventeenth-century sources that have been translated into modern notation that will be familiar to the modern classical guitarist. Our goal is to provide a rich and fun collection of music that broadly represents music for the Renaissance lute and vihuela. Purchase your copy in either Amazon, spiral-bound, or PDF editions at the link below.


While the book gives you everything you need to play this wonderful music, you can go much more in depth with each piece at CGC Academy. At the Academy we have provided lessons on the music, with performance videos, full video lessons, PDFs of the scores, along with question-and-answer sections for each lesson.

Go here to learn more and Join CGC Academy today!