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1 'Comfortable' is, of course, a relative term. One may well understand standard notation without being able to read it easily. Tablature is sufficiently intuitive that most players can pick it up right away.

2 The side and bottom border for this page is taken from tablature for the five-coursed (five pairs of sympathetic strings) vihuela, in the mid 16th century.

Eventually, I may include some stuff on historical notation systems, at least in overview. However, at this point, mostly because I am tired of talking about music notation, I am simply going to summarize the one other system that you are actually likely to see—tablature (tab). Tablature is instrument specific, and the player needs to be told up front how the instrument is to be tuned, if that tuning is anything but standard. In the modern period its use is primarily limited to players who are not comfortable with standard notation.1

Because of its lack of portability to other instruments it is usually disparaged by musicians experienced with standard notation, who often assume it is a fairly new development designed to aid those unwilling to put the time into reading 'real' music. It is actually quite old; it was first developed for the organ in the medieval period and was a standard method for notating fretted instruments prior2 to and during the baroque period.

Morley, It was a lover and his lass Published by Thomas Morley in London, 1600. lute tab

This piece was printed around 1600 for lute and voice. You may notice several things. First the publisher assumed that the musicians could read standard notation, because that is how the vocal line is presented. It should not be assumed that the singer was a different person than the one playing the lute part. Second, the frets to be played are indicated by letters, not numbers (a=open). Third, even though the piece is in tab, the note durations are notated with standard stems and flags.3

3 Well, the time notations are sort of standard. A group of similar notes (e.g. all sixteenths) are often just indicated by the stem on the first note in the series.

This last point frames one of the weaknesses in tablature—note durations are not as obvious as one would like. Nevertheless, most of the time the durations can be inferred. Modern guitar tab uses numbers rather than letters for the frets (with 0=open). Here is a brief example:

tab sample
half-quarter-quarter.   If the audio button is screwed up, try the MIDI
quarter-half-quarter.   If the audio button is screwed up, try the MIDI
quarter-quarter-half. If the audio button is screwed up, try the MIDI

The first two notes are obviously eighths; then there is a dotted quarter followed by another eighth and a quarter. The notes in the second measure look the same as the quarters, but clearly this is in ⁴ time, so they must be half notes. The third measure is a problem though. It obviously contains two quarters and a half, but it is not possible to decide in what order they are supposed to come.

One common solution is to include both, as in the following example:

tab example with score
correct rhythm. If the audio button is screwed up, try the MIDI

Now, what is intended in the third measure is clear, and it has the advantage of being readable both by people who prefer standard notation and by those who prefer tab.

Tablature is the standard method for writing playing samples in on-line formats. This is not because all musicians prefer tab, but because standard music notation is not well supported for web-pages. I will address this issue on another page when I talk about computer programs available for music recording and notation, but the standard for guitar notation on most sites is a form of tab, simply because it lends itself to presentation in ASCII (text) files. Here is an example, shown first in standard/TAB format:

Jewel: Adrian (intro). Jewel - intro to Adrian
If the audio button is screwed up, try the MIDI

Now here is the same passage as found on a web-site (on ultimate-guitar.com, but it is no longer on there):

             Em7         Am7           Em           Am7

Once again, several things present themselves immediately. The most obvious is that there are no stems. There is, in fact no way at all to tell what sort of timing these notes are supposed to have. You are expected to have access to the audio recording to figure that stuff out on your own. The addition of the chords at the top is useful, as is the clearly defined tuning base, but the other thing you may or may not have noticed is that it is wrong. Not just that measure lines are missing (the author may have heard this as eighth notes after all), but the first two notes are also incorrect (admittedly, this is what she plays through the rest of the piece). The only reason I point this out is to alert you that such resources, while they are often useful, need to be verified with your own ears.

It would, I suppose, be possible to address the rhythm problem with more information such as in this version of the first fragment:


4 I suppose you could address this by doing something like |2|, but I do not expect that to catch on either.

But I have never seen anyone do this. It is hard to read, and, of course, you still have the ambiguity in the last measure that is inherent in tab.4 If you have software that is capable of doing both standard and tab, the best approach is to do it as I have done with Adrian above, take a screen shot or make a PDF, and post it that way.


We will next take a brief excursion into the world of available software.

2013 Alan Humm