From Academic Kids

Tablature is a form of musical notation which tells the player where to place their fingers on a particular instrument rather than which pitches to play.

Tablature is almost exclusively for fretted stringed instruments, in which context it is usually called tab for short (except for lute tablature). It is frequently used for the guitar, bass, lute and vihuela, but in principle it can be used for any fretted instrument, including ukulele, mandolin, banjo, and viola da gamba. It is commonly used in notating pop music, and is often seen in folk music.

There were also tablature systems for keyboard instruments and the recorder during the Renaissance and Baroque period. Keyboard tablature has also been proposed more recently, e.g. by Bela Bartok, but without success.



Lute tablatures were of three main varieties, French, Italian (used also in Spain), and German, detailed below. French tablature gradually came to be the most widely used. Tablatures for other instruments were also used from early times on. Keyboard tablatures flourished in Germany c. 1450 - 1750 and in Spain c. 1550 - 1680. Much of the music for the lute and other historical plucked instruments during the Renaissance and Baroque eras was originally written in tablature, and many modern players of those instruments still prefer this kind of notation, often using facsimiles of the original prints or manuscripts, handwritten copies, modern editions in tablature, or printouts made with specialized computer programs.


While standard musical notation represents the rhythm and duration of each note and its pitch relative to the scale based on a thirteen tone division of the octave, tablature is instead operationally based, indicating where and when a finger should be depressed to generate a note, so pitch is denoted implicitly rather than explicitly. The rhythmic symbols of tablature tell when to start a note, but often there is no indication of when to stop sounding it, so duration is at the discretion of the performer to a greater extent than is the case in conventional musical notation. Tablature for plucked strings is based upon a diagrammatic representation of the strings and frets of the instrument, keyboard tablature represents the keys of the instrument, and recorder tablature shows whether each of the fingerholes is to be closed or left open.

Guitar tab

Like standard notation, guitar tab consists of a series of horizontal lines forming a staff (or stave). Each line represents one of the instrument's strings, so standard guitar tab has a six-line staff, and bass guitar tab has four lines. Numbers are written on the lines, with each number representing a fret on the instrument. For instance, a number 3 written on the top line of the staff indicates that the player should press down on the high E (top/thin) string (instead of the low E, which is a thicker string) at the third fret. Number 0 denotes an open string.

Guitar tab looks like this (the tab notation is on the bottom staff, with the equivalent standard notation above): Missing image
Printed tab example

Various lines, arrows and other symbols are used to denote bends, hammer-ons and so on.

While guitar tab is reasonably standardized, different sheet music publishers adopt different conventions for how to write various things. Songbooks and guitar magazines usually include a legend setting out the convention in use.

The most common form of lute tablature uses the same concept but differs in the details (e.g. it uses letters rather than numbers) - see below.

Guitar tab vs. staff notation

In the context of guitar tab, standard (5-line) musical notation is usually called 'staff notation' - even though tab is also written on a staff - or just 'notation'.

Tab has several advantages over staff notation. Since it is a direct visual representation of the instrument's fretboard, it can often be easier and quicker for the player to interpret. Musicians learning to play the guitar or lute often find tab easier to read, even if they have a strong musical background and are adept at reading staff notation for piano or voice. This is because the guitar and lute, like the piano, are 'harmonic' instruments, meaning that multiple notes are played at once; yet there is more complexity to producing a particular pitch than is the case with the piano: to produce, say, middle C, a pianist simply presses the C key, while a guitarist must select the second string, press the string down against the first fret with their left hand, and simultaneously pluck or pick the string with their right hand. An additional potential source of confusion is the fact that many of the notes within the range of a plucked string instrument can be played on several different strings, so for example the middle C discussed above could also be played on the third string at the fifth fret or on the fourth string at the tenth fret. These complexities make the relation between staff notation and playing technique less direct in the case of fretted instruments than in the case of a piano. Tab removes the string/fret ambiguity.

Additionally, because guitar staff notation is written on a single staff (compared to two staves for keyboard music), reading complex chords can take a while for even the most experienced guitarist. Tab does not suffer from this disadvantage.

Another advantage of tab over staff notation is that tab can easily be represented as ASCII tab - a plain-text computer file, using numbers, letters and symbols to construct a slightly crude representation of tab. This characteristic makes it easy to distribute tab electronically, a practice that has become immensely widespread; it is now possible to find tablature for virtually any popular music on the Internet.

Tab does have its disadvantages, however. It is instrument-specific, while standard notation is generic. This limitation means, for instance, that only a guitarist can read tab, while music written in staff notation can be played by any suitable instrument.

Unlike staff notation, tab does not usually include the rhythm of the notes, only their pitch. In practice, this is not much of a limitation; some players read tab and staff notation in tandem, while others listen to a recording to get the 'feel' of the music before consulting the tab for instructions on how to play. Most published tab is accompanied by staff notation so the two can be compared. However, rhythm can be indicated by notes or note stems written above the tab staff; this is always done in lute tablature, and sometimes in guitar tab, particularly if there is no accompanying notation staff.

Lute tablature

Missing image
French Renaissance style lute tablature, with corresponding notation for guitar: a simple Renaissance dance.

Lute tablature is conceptually similar to guitar tablature, but comes in at least three different varieties. The most common variety used today is based on the French Renaissance style (see example at right). In this style the strings are represented by the spaces on the staff (rather than the lines on the staff, as for guitar tablature), and the stops are indicated by lowercase letters of the alphabet (rather than numbers), with the letter 'a' indicating an open string and the 'j' skipped (as it was not originally a separate letter from 'i'). A six-line staff is used, just as for modern guitar tab. However, stops for the first course are shown immediately above the top line, and stops for any courses beyond the sixth are shown below the bottom line, with short horizontal strokes to extend the staff similar to the way very low notes are shown in regular musical notation.

The first five letters are often written in the Greek alphabet rather than the Roman: α, β, γ, δ, ε, and the gamma is often stylized to the point of looking like an 'r', so a stop for the second fret variously shows up as 'c', 'γ', or 'r'. (It appears as 'r' in the example below.) Roman letters are used for stops further up the neck, even when Greek letters are used for the lower stops.

Lute tablature provides flags above the staff to show the rhythms, often only providing a flag when the length of the beat changes, as shown in the example. (Notice that this piece begins with a half measure.)

Other variants of lute tablature use numbers rather than letters, write the stops on the lines rather than in the spaces, or even invert the entire staff so that the lowest notest are on top and the highest are at the bottom.

As with guitar, various different lute tunings may be used, all written using the same tablature method. A tenor viola da gamba can usually be played directly off lute tablature as it typically uses the same tuning. A guitar can often be played off lute tabulature by tuning the g string down to an f# and putting a capo at the third fret to preserve the original pitch.

German lute tablature

The origins of German lute tablature can be traced back well into the 15th century. Blind organist Conrad Paumann is said to have invented it. It was used in German speaking countries until the end of 16th century. When German lute tablature was invented, the lute had only five courses, obviously, which are numbered 1-5, with 1 being the lowest sounding course and 5 the highest. Each place where a course can be stopped at a fret is assigned with a letter of the alphabet, i. e. first course first fret is letter a, second course first fret is letter b, third course first fret is c, fourth course first fret is d, fifth course first fret is e, first course second fret is f, second course second fret is g and so on. Letters j, u, w, are not used. Therefore, two substitutional signs are used, i. e. et (resembling the numeral 7) for fourth course fifth fret, and con (resembling the numeral 9) for fifth course fifth fret. From the sixth position upwards, the alphabetical order is resumed anew with added apostrophes (a', b', ...), strokes above the letters, or the letters doubled (aa, bb, ...). When a 6th course was added to the lute around 1500 CE, different authors would use different symbols for it. Chords are written in vertical order. Melodical moves are notated in the highest possible line, notwithstanding their actual register. Rhythmical signs, which are written in a line above the letters, are single shafts (semibreves), shafts with one flag (minims), shafts with two flags (crotchets), shafts with three flags (quavers), shafts with four flags (semiquavers). Shafts with two or more flags can be connected ("leiterlein", small ladders) into groups of two or four.


         French Italian German
          -r-     ---     k
          -d-     ---     o
          -d- =   -0-  =  n
          -a-     -3-     2
          ---     -3-     
          ---     -2-

Computer programs for writing tablature

Various computer programs are available for writing tablature - see Scorewriter. Some are solely for tablature, while others also write lyrics, guitar chord diagrams, chord symbols and/or staff notation. ASCII tab files can be written (somewhat laboriously) with any ordinary word processor or text editor.

See also

External links


it:Intavolatura nl:Tabulatuur no:Tabulatur ru:Табулатура


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