A typical flamenco recital with voice and guitar accompaniment, comprises a series of pieces (not exactly “songs”) in different palos. Each song consists of a set of verses (called copla, tercio, or letras), which are punctuated by guitar interludes called falsetas. The guitarist also provides a short introduction which sets the tonality, compás and tempo of the cante. In some palos, these falsetas are also played with certain structure too; for example, the typical sevillanas is played in an AAB pattern, where A and B are the same falseta with only a slight difference in the ending.
Flamenco uses the modern Phrygian mode (modo frigio), or a harmonic version of that scale with a major 3rd degree, in addition to the major and minor scales commonly used in modern western music. The Phrygian mode occurs in palos such as soleá, most bulerías, siguiriyas, tangos and tientos.
Descending E Phrygian scale in flamenco music, with common alterations in parentheses
A typical chord sequence, usually called the "Andalusian cadence" may be viewed as in a modified Phrygian: in E the sequence is Am–G–F–E. According to Manolo Sanlúcar E is here the tonic, F has the harmonic function of dominant while Am and G assume the functions of subdominant and mediant respectively.
Guitarists tend to use only two basic inversions or "chord shapes" for the tonic chord (music), the open 1st inversion E and the open 3rd inversion A, though they often transpose these by using a capo. Modern guitarists such as Ramón Montoya, have introduced other positions: Montoya himself started to use other chords for the tonic in the modern Dorian sections of several palos; F sharp for tarantas, B for granaínas and A flat for the minera. Montoya also created a new palo as a solo for guitar, the rondeña in C sharp with scordatura. Later guitarists have further extended the repertoire of tonalities, chord positions and scordatura.
There are also palos in major mode; most cantiñas and alegrías, guajiras, some bulerías and tonás, and the cabales (a major type of siguiriyas). The minor mode is restricted to the Farruca, the milongas (among cantes de ida y vuelta), and some styles of tangos, bulerías, etc. In general traditional palos in major and minor mode are limited harmonically to two-chord (tonic–dominant) or three-chord (tonic–subdominant–dominant) progressions. (Rossy 1998:92) However modern guitarists have introduced chord substitution, transition chords, and even modulation.
Fandangos and derivative palos such as malagueñas, tarantas and cartageneras) are bimodal: guitar introductions are in Phrygian mode while the singing develops in major mode, modulating to Phrygian at the end of the stanza. (Rossy 1998:92)
Dionisio Preciado, quoted by Sabas de Hoces  established the following characteristics for the melodies of flamenco singing:
Microtonality: presence of intervals smaller than the semitone.
Portamento: frequently, the change from one note to another is done in a smooth transition, rather than using discrete intervals.
Short tessitura or range: Most traditional flamenco songs are limited to a range of a sixth (four tones and a half). The impression of vocal effort is the result of using different timbres, and variety is accomplished by the use of microtones.
Use of enharmonic scale. While in equal temperament scales, enharmonics are notes with identical pitch but different spellings (e.g. A flat and G sharp); in flamenco, as in unequal temperament scales, there is a microtonal intervalic difference between enharmonic notes.
Insistence on a note and its contiguous chromatic notes (also frequent in the guitar), producing a sense of urgency.
Baroque ornamentation, with an expressive, rather than merely aesthetic function.
Apparent lack of regular rhythm, especially in the siguiriyas: the melodic rhythm of the sung line is different from the metric rhythm of the accompaniment.
Most styles express sad and bitter feelings.
Melodic improvisation: flamenco singing is not, strictly speaking, improvised, but based on a relatively small number of traditional songs, singers add variations on the spur of the moment.
Musicologist Hipólito Rossy adds the following characteristics (Rossy 1997: 97):
Flamenco melodies are characterized by a descending tendency, as opposed to, for example, a typical opera aria, they usually go from the higher pitches to the lower ones, and from forte to piano, as was usual in ancient Greek scales.
In many styles, such as soléa or siguiriya, the melody tends to proceed in contiguous degrees of the scale. Skips of a third or a fourth are rarer. However, in fandangos and fandango-derived styles, fourths and sixths can often be found, especially at the beginning of each line of verse. According to Rossy, this is proof of the more recent creation of this type of songs,influenced by Castilian jota.
Compás is the Spanish word for metre and time signature in classical music theory. It also refers to the rhythmic cycle, or layout, of a palo.
The compás is fundamental to flamenco. Without it, there is no flamenco. Compás is most often translated as rhythm but it demands far more precise interpretation than other Western styles of music. If there is no guitarist available, the compás is rendered through hand clapping (palmas) or by hitting a table with the knuckles. The guitarist uses techniques like strumming (rasgueado) or tapping the soundboard. Changes of chords emphasize the most important downbeats.
Flamenco uses three basic counts or measures: Binary, Ternary and a form of a twelve-beat cycle that is unique to flamenco. There are also free-form styles including, among others, the tonás, saetas, malagueñas, tarantos, and some types of fandangos.
Rhythms in 2/4 or 4/4. These metres are used in forms like tangos, tientos, gypsy rumba, zambra and tanguillos.
Rhythms in 3/4. These are typical of fandangos and sevillanas, suggesting their origin as non-Gypsy styles, since the 3/4 and 4/4 measures are not common in ethnic Gypsy music.
12-beat rhythms usually rendered in amalgams of 6/8 + 3/4 and sometimes 12/8. The 12-beat cycle is the most common in flamenco, differentiated by the accentuation of the beats in different palos. The accents do not correspond to the classic concept of the downbeat. The alternating of groups of 2 and 3 beats is also common in Spanish folk dances of the 16th Century such as the zarabanda, jácara and canarios.
There are three types of 12-beat rhythms, which vary in their layouts, or use of accentuations: soleá, seguiriya and bulería.
peteneras and guajiras: 1 2 3 4 5 6 7 8 9 10 11 12 Both palos start with the strong accent on 12. Hence the meter is 12 1 2 3 4 5 6 7 8 9 10 11...
The seguiriya, liviana , serrana, toná liviana, cabales: 1 2 3 4 5 6 7 8 9 10 11 12 The seguiriya is the same as the soleá but starting on the 8th beat
soleá, within the cantiñas group of palos which includes the alegrías, cantiñas, mirabras, romera, caracoles and soleá por bulería (also " bulería por soleá"): 1 2 3 4 5 6 7 8 9 10 11 12. For practical reasons, when transferring flamenco guitar music to sheet music, this rhythm is written as a regular 3/4.
The Bulerías is the emblematic palo of flamenco: today its 12-beat cycle is most often played with accents on the 3rd, 7th, 8th, 10th and 12th beats. The accompanying palmas are played in groups of 6 beats, giving rise to a multitude of counter rhythms and percussive voices within the 12 beat compás.