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Against Tablature

David Raleigh Arnold

Amy Zapf’s Rant

I am quoting her message in its entirety, with a very few formatting changes. The list was lilypond-user:[1]

Off-List Re: Lute tablature Date: Fri, 23 May 2003 00:12:54 +0200 From: Amelie Zapf To: dra@openguitar.com

Hi Dave,

I think it's better not to voice my opinion publicly on the list so it won’t create any more ruckus than we already had. And my opinion is: I can't stand tablature. Thanks for speaking up.

Fact 1:

Tablature is not music notation. The conversion of notation to tab is lossy (note durations et al.). Tablature is dependent on the nature and tuning of the writer's instrument. It does not specify music, just the way to handle an instrument. If you want to specify what string to play a note on in normal notation, those nice Roman numerals denoting the fretting-hand position are unambiguous. Compared to the wiring diagram of music notation, tablature is a mere owner’s manual. Notation puts you in the driver’s seat. Tablature puts you under the rear wheels.

Fact 2:

Teaching tablature for anything other than historical reasons is cheating on the student. IMHO, it's impossible to grasp from tablature how music ticks, because what’s notated is not music. I don't think it’s a coincidence that tablature arose in the heyday of absolutism in Europe. Absolutist monarchs took care that their subjects didn't know too much. Absolutist composers take care that their performers don’t know too much about music itself. Coincidence? I don't think so. In our time, we want our students to learn. Notation is the way to go, it gets the logic of harmony on the page in a crystal clear fashion.

Fact 3:

Tablature is not portable. Imagine your continuo lutenist falling sick the day of the gig. The only person you can get to substitute is a harpsichord player. What's she gonna do?

Fact 4:

Have you heard any pianist, or harpsichordist, or organist complain about the loss of keyboard tablature? Not me. In fact, most of them can't even read it. That might be because of the sheer number of composer-pianists around that finally saw how impractical tab is for composition and subsequently turned to notation.

There's a point you made assessing the relative merits of guitar, banjo, and lute tab that I don't understand. I don't see a big difference there. All three hide the music behind a simple instruction for execution. Players of all three would be better off with notes and a numeral indicating the left hand position. Could you clarify this for me?

Kind regards,

Amy pianist / guitarist / composer / used-to-be banjo player Berlin, Germany

PS: BTW, sly rocks! (always wanted to say that, but never had an appropriate opportunity).

My Very Belated Reply

Thank you for this message, and for giving me permission to quote it.

Also, thank you for liking sly. It is less necessary now with improvements in LilyPond, and sly badly needs updating, but editing tools for LilyPond are still occasionally very useful and helpful, or even necessary.

Fact 1:

I put it slightly differently. It is essential that guitar students understand that notes have endings as well as beginnings. Tablature does not contain endings, so tab contains at most only half of the information that is in the notation. That is not enough information to be able to render the music adequately. Stringed instrument tablature is nothing more than an orderly way of presenting some of the playing instructions for the left hand only.

Fact 2:

Yes, using tab to teach guitar as an alternative to notation is cheating the student, but it is on the ascendancy. Lord Buddha said that when counterfeit money is circulated, genuine money goes out of circulation. He was talking about the marketplace of ideas, and the exact same concept is expressed in the Christian Bible. (the Gospels? Jeremiah?) Anyway, these vermin tell students that it’s just fine to work with tab and never learn to read music, and of course most of their students believe them. It's never hard to sell an easier road, especially if you don’t care that it goes nowhere.

Teachers are supposed to open doors, not close them.

Fact 3:

Also, occasionally a composer expects a performer to play what he wrote.

Fact 4:

The way I understand it, what happened to keyboard tab is that the organist was also the choir director, and a score with both the voices and tab was just plain impractical.

Lute tab was tolerable because the neck of the instrument was shorter, so playing high on the neck was rare. Often the lute part was for rehearsing singers, so the lutenist had access to the vocal parts, and that could clarify the meaning of the tab. Clearly, the lute players were literate. Your point about absolutism is interesting and well taken. IMO a decent edition of lute music would have piano notation above and modernized tab below.

The banjo has two G strings and usually two D strings, and with the strings tuned with such small intervals between them, the number of string indications necessary is prohibitive. Tablature under the notation is necessary to give string indications in an orderly manner. The notation is not dispensible, and without the notation it is usually quite impossible to render the music without having heard it first. See my banjo music to see how it should be done. Look elsewhere to see how it is usually done.

The guitar’s long neck often makes it possible to render the same phrase in various positions. That is very rare for the lute or banjo. With tab, you cannot see the musical relationship between the two renderings, or see any musical relationships at all. This makes tab players incompetent improvisers, composers, or songwriters, not only because they don’t know their chords and harmony, but because they don’t see any other relationships either, as you pointed out.

If I were to typeset guitar music which had an unusual tuning, other than a simple transposition, I would include a line of tab underneath the notation. Vertical tab, or chord diagrams, can give a quick start for chord playing or take advantage of the fact that the guitar transposes with a simple slide up or down the neck. I do not say that tab is totally without its uses, but using tab as a substitute for notation is a vile and reprehensible practice.

With best wishes, daveA 7/29/09


§1 LilyPond is an excellent music notation program, GNU licensed.

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