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Tablature (or tabulature) is a form of musical notation, which tells players where to place their fingers on a particular instrument rather than which pitches to play.
Tablature is mostly (but not exclusively) seen 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, archlute, theorbo, mandora, gallichon, and vihuela, but in principle it can be used for any fretted instrument, including ukulele, mandolin, banjo, and viola da gamba, as well as many free reed aerophones such as the harmonica. It is commonly used in notating rock and pop music, is often seen in folk music, and was common during Renaissance and Baroque eras. Organ tablature was also used in North Europe. (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').
Origin & Etymology
Tablature is originated from the Latin word tabulatura (tabula is a table or blackboard). To tabulate (tabulating) means putting something into a table or chart.
There are 2 different common spellings, with (tabulature) and without "u" (tablature). While the "tabulature" is closer to original latin word, and thus more correct emytologically, the adapted version "tablature" seems to be more wide-spread in modern English. As of 2006, Google searches indicate that word "tablature" (~7 000 000 hits) is used 32 times more frequent than "tabulature" (~209 000 hits). "Tabulature" is considered a "classical" spelling and is commonly used in academic music circles, while "tablature" is often used by pop and rock musicians.
Moreover, both of these words are relatively long and are frequently changed to brief "tab" in casual speech. To be less ambiguous, it is preceeded by instrument name (i.e. "guitar tab", "bass tab", "organ tab") when required.
First known existence in Europe is around 1300. (In Asia there exist much older tablature notations.)
Lute tablatures were of three main varieties, French, Italian (also widely used in Spain, Bavaria and southern France), and German, detailed below. A special variety of Italian tablature called "Neapolitan" was in use in southern Italy, and a Polish variety of French tablature appears in one manuscript. 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 twelve 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.
The harmonica tab was basically a 1-to-1 mapping of the notes to the corresponding hole, and thus, is a type of numbered musical notation. For each note, it will indicate the number of the hole to play, direction of breathing (in or out), and even either bending (usually for diatonic) or "slide-in" (usually for chromatic)
One methology for indicating direction of breath is by showing the direction of arrow; another is by using either a "+" or "-" sign, or "i" (for inhale) and "e" (for exhale). Bending was shown with a bent arrow with the direction of breath, or by a circle that circle the note, or even a simple line next to the breath indicator. Additional lines and/or circle may be used to indicate how much to bend.
For example, on a key "C" diatonic:
Unbent Bent lv1 Bent lv2 Bent lv3 3i (B) 3i| (Bb) 3i|| (A) 3i||| (G#)
To indicate button press on Chromatic, a similar indication to first level bending may be used.
The breath indicator may be placed right next to the hole number, or below the number. Same for bending/button press indicators.
To indicate the beat, on arrow system they may use the length of the arrow. However, the more popular method would be to use a slightly simplified notations, such as "o" for whole note, // for half notes, "/" for quarter notes, "." for eighth notes, and place them above the characters, while spacing them accordingly.
For chord, they will simply show the numbers to play, so for example:
a C major (CEG) chord (on a C diatonic): 456e
However, they may simplify it, especially when playing blues. For chords, it was common to just play three or two holes instead (sometimes even just one), especially when the instrument is not of the same key. For example, in blues progression in G (G G G G7 C C G G D7 D7 G G) it's common to use C diatonic, and use the following:
G chord (G-B-D): 34i (BD)G7 chord (G-BD-F): 45i (DF).D7 chord (D-F#-A-C): 4i (D) or 4e (C)
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 guitar tab has a six-line staff, and bass guitar tab has four lines. Those new to tablatures may, if not told otherwise, initially be confused at the order in which the strings are written; rather than the top (lowest-pitch) string at the top of the tablature, the bottom (highest-pitch) string is there, since the strings are written in highest-to-lowest order instead of top-to-bottom. However, there is a reason for this: when a guitarist is playing his instrument, if he chooses to watch the fretboard, he must look down at the neck of the guitar. Whether the guitar is lying flat on the lap or hanging from the neck, the thickest string appears to be on the bottom. Thus, when tablature is written with the thickest string on the bottom, it makes for simple and consistent playing of the guitar while reading tab at the same time.
The examples below are labelled with letters on the left denoting the string names, with a lower-case "e" for the high E string. Tab lines may be numbered 1-6 instead, representing standard string numbering, where "1" is the high E string, "2" is the B string, and so on.
Numbers are written on the lines also, where each number represents 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 at the third fret on the high E (bottom/thinnest) string (instead of the low E string, which is the top/thickest string). Number 0 denotes the nut - that is, an open string.
For chords, a letter above or below the tab staff denotes the root note of the chord.
Examples of Guitar Tab Notation:
The chords E, F, and G:e|---0---1---3---B|---0---1---3---G|---1---2---0---D|---2---3---0---A|---2---3---2---E|---0---1---3--- E F G
Excerpt from "Happy Birthday":e|------------------------------------------------------------------------B|------------------------------------------------------0-----------------G|------------------2-----1-----------------------------1-----2-----------D|2---2-4-----2-----4-----2-----------2---2-4-----2-----------------------A|0---0-0-----0-----------------------------------------------0-----------E|------------------------------0-----0---0-0-----0-----------------------...
Various lines, arrows and other symbols are used to denote bends, hammer-ons, trills, Pull-offs, slides, 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 for frets) - see below.
Guitar tab vs. standard staff notation
Tab has some advantages over staff notation. It does have its disadvantages, however. Generally speaking, guitar tab is commonly used in popular and rock music due to its ease of use. On the other hand, classical guitar music usually uses staff notation for its precision on timing and rhythm.
Direct visual representation. Since tab is a direct visual representation of the instrument's fretboard, it can often be easier and quicker for the player to interpret. Like painting by numbers, musicians learning to play the guitar or lute often find tab easier to read, because it does not require any training for one to be able to read tab.
In the same vein, some players prefer tab 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, note C5 (the C an octave above middle C), a pianist simply presses the C5 key, while a guitarist must select the second string, press the string down against the first fret with the left hand, and simultaneously pluck or pick the string with the right hand (or vice versa for a left-handed individual). An additional potential source of confusion is that many of the notes within the range of a plucked string instrument can be played on several different strings, so for example the note C5 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. While staff notation needs to remove the string/fret ambiguity by further indicating the position of fret (usually with Roman numerals), tab does not contain this ambiguity at all.
Simple typewriter-font representation. 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 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 free tablatures for virtually any popular music on the Internet, although a considerable amount of those tabs may be illegal. (Legal Issue below.)
Instrument-specific. Tablature is instrument-specific, while staff notation is generic. This limitation means that only a guitarist can read guitar tab, while music written in staff notation can be played by any suitable instrument. Reading solely from tab may cause problems when a guitarist tries to play music with other musicians such as flutist or violinist. Beside this, it also prevents the guitarist from playing pieces that are composed for other instruments (because most of them are written in staff notation). In contrast, a guitarist who reads staff notation can understand those pieces, make necessary adjustment and play them on guitar. A guitarist who solely reads from tab requires someone to make the transcription or figure it out from a recording (if there is) of the piece.
More difficult to read without playing. In a similar vein, since tab notation effectively gives instructions on how to play notes rather than information on how the notes will sound, it can be very difficult to get a feel of the music simply by studying the page without playing it through; this task is easier with staff notation.
Lack of timing information. Another limitation of tab is the lack of accurate information on rhythm and timing. For pop/rock guitarists, it may not be a great problem as they often learn a piece by listening to the recording of the music to get the 'feel' before consulting the tab for instructions on how to play. Other pop/rock guitarists may read tab and staff notation in tandem to acquire information of rhythm and timing. (Power Tab Editor and TablEdit Tablature Editor are examples of tandem tab and staff notation.) Rhythm is sometimes also 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.
For classical guitar, however, tab is too dysfunctional to be used for most pieces above intermediate level, simply because of its inaccuracy on rhythm. For example, pieces like Choro No.1 and Etude No.11 by Villa-Lobos, Sevilla by Issac Albeniz, Un Sueno en la Floresta by Augustin Barrios, and many others, are almost impossible to be written down in tab without causing a lot of confusion. They can, however, be effectively and accurately written/read from staff notation.
Simplistic. The largest disadvantage may be that solely using tablature can keep an individual from focusing on music theory, which derives from a knowledge of the notes themselves, not a recognized predetermined position for playing notes or chords. For a deeper appreciation of the instrument, an understanding of notation can allow an individual to improvise more accurately and freely, or accompany in improvisation through different key changes more clearly and deliberately. People who have only learned from tab have a tendency to noodle around trying to find the sound they're looking for, rather than recognizing the potential of the notes within the key they find themselves in.
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 tablature by tuning the g string down to an f# and putting a capo at the third fret to preserve the original pitch.
In standard Baroque lute tabulature, each staff has six lines, representing the FIRST six courses. The course of the highest pitch appears at the top, and that of the lowest appears at the bottom. Please note that Italian Archlute of the same period uses an opposite system.
Lower case letters or "glyphs"are placed on each of these lines to represent notes. If you are required to play an open D course, for instance, a small "a" will be placed on the appropriate line. For a note with the finger on the first fret a "b", a note on the second fret a "c", etc.. The 2 exceptions to this are that no "j" is used, as it was considered to be too similar to "i", and the Greek "Gamma" is usually used in place of "c" to avoid any resemblance to "e". So:
F_____c___D_____a___A_____b___F_____c___D_____a___A_____b___G - a
would represent a G-minor chord,
All open strings would represent a D-minor chord:
The strings below the 6th course are notated with additional short "ledger" lines: glyphs are placed below the staff. These courses are tuned in accordance with the key of each piece played:
G- aF- /aE- //aD- ///aC- 4B- 5A- 6
The rhythm is notated in a fairly straightforward manner: It is represented by headless note-stems with tails [stylized similarly but some regional variations (in spite of some variety the confusion is rare)], with the exception of whole and half notes, whereas it would be essential to use heads.
The ornaments would require a special discussion, as many composers used rather personalized sets thereof.
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-
Borjon de Scellery's Traité de la musette includes pieces for musette de cour in both standard notation and tablature, plus a partial explanation of his system.
The numbers refer to the keys on the instrument, and are shown on a five-line stave so that they also correspond with standard notation. Standard symbols for note-lengths are written above each tablature-staff.
No explanation is given for the slur-like symbol; the comma , is explained as indicating a tremblement, starting on the note above.
The standard notation shown in the illustration is also taken from de Scellery; once again, no explanation is given for the unusual beaming or the significance (if any) of where note-length symbols are repeated.
Computer programs for writing tablature
Various computer programs are available for writing tablature - see Scorewriter, Fronimo, Django. Some are solely for tablature, while others also write lyrics, guitar chord diagrams, chord symbols and/or staff notation (Guitar Pro or TablEdit). ASCII tab files can be written (somewhat laboriously) with any ordinary word processor or text editor.
The business model that many Internet tablature sites follow is based on the supply of free goods. Many use advertising to generate revenue, often to cover server hardware and maintenance costs. Composers and music publishers might argue  that free Internet tablature sites are simply competing corporate publishers that distribute music publications without paying royalties to those who own the copyrights. If free Internet tablature sites claim to provide an educational service or are non-profit, they bear the burden to justify their service legal under the fair use doctrine of copyright law (see Fair Use As A Defense). The legality of free Internet tablature served by tablature websites is still in dispute largely because websites have thus far only been threatened with legal action; the issue has yet to be taken to court.
The Music Publishers' Association (MPA) has recently taken the position that distributing free tablature online is illegal and is pushing to shut down websites that offer free tablature. MPA president Lauren Keiser says that their goal would be for owners of free tablature services to face fines and even imprisonment. Several websites that offer free tablature have already taken their tablature offline until a solution or compromise is found.
As of Monday December 12, 2005, tabs of copyrighted music were considered illegal by the music industry, and numerous prominent sites providing tabs, such as Mxtabs.net, had closed down. However, as of February 23, 2006, the owners of Mxtabs put the website back online with a letter explaining their position. In short, they believe that the purpose of Mxtabs is to "aid musicians in learning their instruments." They say that Mxtabs has accounted for as much as $3000 a month in sheet music sales, and offers many tabs that do not have equivalent sheet music published, so Mxtabs and similar sites are the only place that musicians can find a way to play these songs. The letter concludes by pointing out that tabs have never been proven to be illegal, then requesting that sheet music companies contact Mxtabs in order to create a system of tab licensing.
On July 17, 2006, Guitar Tab Universe (GTU) posted a letter on its homepage that its ISP had been jointly threatened with legal action by the National Music Publishers' Association (NMPA) and the MPA "on the basis that sharing tablature constitutes copyright infringement" . In response, GTU's site owner immediately created the Music Student and Teacher Organization (MuSATO) to rally support to keep Internet guitar tablature free of charge on the basis of fair use in education. MuSATO argues that Internet guitar tablature does not inifringe upon publishers' copyrights because it does not come from pre-existing printed resources and are not entirely accurate representations of songs. Furthermore, Internet guitar tablature enables an educational relationship between music student (the one who downloads tabs) and music teacher (the one who created the tab). Guitar tab websites foster this educational relationship by making this tablature freely available to the public. MuSATO is still in development.
GuitarTabs.com has been contacted by the NMPA and MPA with similar copyright infringement allegations. The NMPA and MPA have also threatened with similar legal action to that of the one facing Guitar Tab Universe. A copy of the certified letter received by the site owner, along with a brief note similar to the one posted on Mxtabs from the site owner, has been posted on the website.
The tablature debate was featured on NPR's Morning Edition in a segment entitled "Music Industry Goes After Guitar Tablature Websites" on August 7, 2006.
- ASCII tab
- Drum tablature
- Klavar notation
- Keyboard tablature
- Howard Wright's Guide to Tablature Notation
- Wiki Guitar Wiki-Based tablature archive.
- Music Student and Teacher Organization An organization that supports the fair use of Internet guitar tablature in education.
- The Tabworld.com
-  A popular Dutch tablature site
- Great looking TAB templates DigbyDoodle music paper templates (Professional-Quality)
Categories: Cleanup from May 2006 | Current events | Articles with unsourced statements | Musical notation