Tablature (or tabulature, or tab for short) is a form of musical notation indicating instrument fingering rather than musical pitches.
Tablature is common for fretted stringed instruments such as the lute, vihuela, or guitar, as well as many free reed aerophones such as the harmonica. Tablature was common during the Renaissance and Baroque eras, and is commonly used in notating rock, pop, folk, ragtime, and blues music.
The word tablature originates from the Latin word tabulatura. Tabula is a table or slate, in Latin. To tabulate something means to put it into a table or chart.
There are 2 different common spellings, with (tabulature) and without "u" (tablature). While "tabulature" is closer to the original Latin word, and thus more correct etymologically, the adapted version "tablature" seems to be more widespread in modern English.
Both of these words are frequently shortened to "tab" in casual speech. To be less ambiguous, it is preceded by an instrument name (e.g., "guitar tab", "bass tab", "organ tab") when required.
The first known occurrence in Europe is around 1300, and was first used for notating music for the organ (see Willi Apel's book on music notation for a fuller history). 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 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 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 placed to generate a note, so pitch is denoted implicitly rather than explicitly. The rhythmic symbols of tablature tell when to start a note, but usually 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.
Tablature is more easily read by a novice fretted string musician than standard notation; all one needs to do is tune the instrument, place one's fingers on the indicated string and fret, and sound the note. During the Renaissance, tablature was used by professionals and amateurs alike to set down music for lute, cittern, bandora, orpharion, four- and five-course early guitar, and violas da gamba. Repertoire for lute began to change during the 1700s; use of the lute in orchestras to play basso continuo obliged lutenists to work from parts written in the staff notation suitable also for keyboard instruments and harps. Tabulature continued in use for solo lute and guitar works, but eventually lost popularity and nearly died out, remaining in informal use amongst amateurs, aficionados, and within folk idioms such as flamenco.
Victorian-era musicologists found themselves in a quandary when it came to publishing scholarly editions; players of the original instruments were uncommon, whereas most musicologists did play piano. Editions prior to the Early Music movement presented the music transcribed for guitar or piano (or both), leaving lute players at a loss for their own repertoire as it was originally published. Popular interest in early music created a need for performing editions of Renaissance repertoire in tablature.
After World War two ended, acoustic and electric guitar became popular, and guitar tablature was reborn.
Tablature notation has two significant deficiencies. First is an inability to convey the duration of notes sustained against a melisma. Only the beginning of each note can be shown; which notes of a chord should be sustained, and for how long, is an artistic decision for the player.
The second problem is one of choice. Historical lute tablature has three major forms (French, German, Italian); each of these has variants. Modern players usually specialize in just one form, and it is difficult to become facile at reading all of them. The surviving repertoire is divided roughly equally, with French and Italian being preferred by modern players over German (especially facsimile editions, as the originals were published in black letter type which is unfamiliar to modern readers). Modern publishers have a difficult decision to make in choosing a form for a modern anthology.
Lute tablature is similar to guitar tablature, but comes in at least three different varieties. The most common variety used today is based on the French Renaissance system (see example at right). In this style the strings are represented by the lines on the staff (occasionally the spaces above the lines on the staff), 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 tablature. However, lutes were not limited to 6 strings or courses (they could have as many as 19), and stops for any courses beyond the sixth were shown below the bottom line, with short diagonal strokes (see below).
The letters soon developed somewhat stylized forms for ease of recognition. In particular, the letter 'c' often resembled 'r'. This was common in many styles of Renaissance handwriting, but also helped to differentiate 'c' from 'e'. Also, sometimes 'y' was used for 'i'.
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 from lute tablature as it typically uses the same tuning. A guitar can often be played from 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. (The Italian Archlute of the same period uses an opposite system.)
F____________________ D____________________ A____________________ F____________________ D____________________ A____________________
Lowercase letters or "glyphs"are placed on each of these lines to represent notes. If it is 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. However, as mentioned above, "j" was not used since it was not considered a separate letter from "i", and "c" often looked more like "r". Thus:
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:
F______a________ D______a________ A______a________ F______a________ D______a________ A______a________ D- ///a
The strings below the sixth 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- a F- /a E- //a D- ///a C- 4 B- 5 A- 6
A number of slightly different systems were used to show rhythm: some scribes and printers used headed notes, but it was simpler for a scribe to use headless tails for the fast-moving notes these plucked instruments commonly played (breve to semi-fusa); and early printers followed the scribal practice. Individual tails were sometimes combined into 'grids', resemblimg today's beams. The semibreve was indicated by an untailed line, the breve by a circled line or a line flagged to the left. Regarding notation of rhythms, French manuscripts tend to use a more florid script for the rhythmic values while English and Germanic manuscripts tend to use a more conservative script.
The lute was a virtuoso's instrument, and rapid ornamentation in the form of graces, trills, shakes, fall-backs, mordents, etc. were expected of players ad libitum to ornament the music artfully, beyond just playing the written notes. Some of these ornaments may be written out, but more commonly a special symbol would mark places where they might be used; these symbols are the subject for a special discussion; each scribe and composer had a different style of ornamentation and there were a variety of ways to notate them. However, for a general discussion of French tablature ornaments see Furnas' dissertation discussing the Manchester Lyra viol manuscript.
The majority of viola da gamba tablature manuscripts is written in French Baroque tablature. The difference between viola da gamba tablature (also called lyra viol tablature) and lute tablute is that the chords in lyra viol music must include all the strings between the highest and lowest notes in the chord. Lutinists, however, can play broken chords (chords that do not include all the internal strings within a chord). Additionally, a diagonal slash often appears in lyra viol manuscript, indicating a slur. As these distinction are subtle, manuscripts have often beein misidentified.
Two features of French tablature are critical. French tab does not use the letter i. It is replaced by the letter y. Second, the letter c is often written in a manner that suggest the letter r.
A few lyra viol manuscripts notate music above the octave. In such rare cases, no letters are ignored. Thus, letters follow: h, y, j, k, l, and m. Lyra viol music above the octave is extremely rare. Contemporary composers, including Peter H. Adams have written music up to the octave and a fifth above the open string.
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 the 16th century. When German lute tablature was invented, the lute had only five courses, numbered 1 (the lowest sounding course) to 5 (highest). Each place where a course can be stopped at a fret is assigned with a letter of the alphabet, i. e., the first frets of courses 1 through 5 are represented by the letters a through e, the second frets by f through k, and so on. The letters j, u, w, are not used. Therefore, two substitutional signs are used, i. e., et (resembling the numeral 7) for the fourth course's fifth fret, and con (resembling the numeral 9) for the fifth course's fifth fret. From the sixth position upwards, the alphabetical order is resumed anew with added prime marks (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 used different symbols for it. Chords are written in vertical order. Melodic motions are notated in the highest possible line, notwithstanding their actual register. Rhythmical signs, which are written in a line above the letters, are single stems (semibreves), shafts with one flag (minims), stems with two flags (crotchets), stems with three flags (quavers), stems with four flags (semiquavers). Stems with two or more flags can be grouped into units of two or four ("leiterlein" in German, i. e., small ladders).
French Italian German
-r- --- k -d- --- o -d- = -0- = n -a- -3- 2 --- -3- --- -2-
Various computer programs are available for writing tablature. The two standard programs used by the lute community are Fronimo by Francesco Tribioli and Django by Alain Veylit. These were designed for the purpose of engraving tabulatures for various lutes and other plucked instruments for early music (these programs also provide fully implemented midi playback of tablature scores.
There are many other programs, some solely for tablature while others also write lyrics, guitar chord diagrams, chord symbols, and/or staff notation (e.g., Power Tab, Guitar Pro, TablEdit, Musedit, SmartScore, etc. ). ASCII tab files can be written (somewhat laboriously) with any ordinary word processor or text editor. An Opensource program written in Java is TuxGuitar, it supports writing notes, tablatures, playing them, and exporting to many formats. Internet sites such as TinyLick allow creation and sharing of tablature using a web browser. Both Finale and Sibelius software offer some lute tablature support (in Italian, Spanish, and French styles, but no German, as is offered by Fronimo). Sibelius and Finale do not provide fonts to score lute tablature giving an historic appearance, but can incorporate any fonts needed for any style desired (with extra set-up time) which can be easily transferred to additional scores.
Guitar tablature consists of a series of horizontal lines forming a staff (or stave) similar to standard notation. Each line represents one of the instrument's strings. Therefore standard guitar tab has a six-line staff and bass guitar tab has four lines. The top line of the tablature represents the highest-pitched string of the guitar. By writing tablature with the lowest pitched notes on the bottom line and the highest pitched notes on the top line of the tablature follows the same basic structure and layout of Western Standard Notation.
The following examples are labelled with letters on the left denoting the string names, with a lowercase 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, etc.
The numbers that are written on the lines represent the fret used to obtain the desired pitch. For example, the 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 (first string). Number 0 denotes the nut—that is, an open string.
Examples of guitar tab notation:
The chords E, F, and G: E|---0---1---3--- B|---0---1---0--- G|---1---2---0--- D|---2---3---0--- A|---2---3---2--- E|---0---1---3--- E F G
Various lines, arrows, and other symbols are used to denote bends, hammer-ons, trills, pull-offs, slides, and so on. These are the tablature symbols that represent various techniques, though these may vary:
|b||bend string up|
|v||vibrato (sometimes written as ~)|
|t||right hand tap|
|\n/||tremolo bar dip; n = amount to dip|
|\n||tremolo bar down|
|n/||tremolo bar up|
|/n\||tremolo bar inverted dip|
|=||hold bend; also acts as connecting device for hammers/pulls|
|<>||volume swell (louder/softer)|
|x||on rhythm slash represents muted slash|
|o||on rhythm slash represents single note slash|
Guitar Tablature is not standardized and different sheet-music publishers adopt different conventions. 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.
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.
The standard notation shown in the illustration is also taken from de Scellery; no explanation is given for the slur-like symbol; the comma , is explained as indicating a tremblement, starting on the note above. No explanation is given for the unusual beaming or the significance (if any) of where note-length symbols are repeated.
The harmonica tab was basically a one-to-one 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 bending (usually for diatonic) or "slide-in" (usually for chromatic)
One method of indicating direction of breath is by using arrows; another is by using either a "+" or "-" sign, or "i" (for inhale) and "e" (for exhale). Bending is shown with a bent arrow with the direction of breath, or by a circle around the note, or even a simple line next to the breath indicator. Additional lines and/or circles may be used to indicate how much to bend.
For example, on a "C" diatonic instrument:
Unbent Bent lv1 Bent lv2 Bent lv3 3i (B) 3i| (Bb) 3i|| (A) 3i||| (G#)
To indicate button-press on a chromatic instrument, 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. The same is true for bending or button-press indicators.
To indicate the beat, in the arrow system the length of the arrow may be varied. However, the more popular method is to use a slightly simplified rhythm-symbol notation, such as "o" for a semibreve, // for a minim, "/" for a crotchet, "." for quovers, and place them above the characters, while spacing them accordingly.
For chords, the numbers to play are shown, so, for example: a C major (CEG) chord (on a C diatonic instrument): 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 the blues progression in G (G G G G7 C C G G D7 D7 G G) it is common to use a C diatonic instrument, and notate the following:
There are many harmonica tab systems in use. The easiest tab system works like this.
Diatonic Harmonica tab
2 = blow the 2 hole -2 = draw the 2 hole -2' = draw the 2 hole with a half bend -2" = draw the 2 hole with a full bend
chords are shown by grouping notes with parentheses
(2 3) = blow the 2 hole and the 3 hole at the same time
Chromatic Harmonica tab
2 = blow the 2 hole -2 = draw the 2 hole <2 = blow the 2 hole with the button in <-2 = draw the 2 hole with the button in
Harmonica tab is usually lined up with lyrics to show the tune and the timing.
Harmonica tab usually tells you the key of the harmonica the song is tabbed for.
Here is an example of harmonica tab:
"Mack the Knife"
C Diatonic 5 6 -6 -6 5 6 -6 -6 Oh the shark has pretty teeth, dear -4 -5 -6 -6 -4 -5 -6 And he shows them pearly white 6 -7 -8 7 -7 -6 7 -4 Just a jack knife has MacHeath, dear 5 -5 7 -4 7 -7 -6 And he keeps it out of sight
There has been a lot of controversy over the legal position of internet free tablature, as many internet tablature websites provide tablature free of charge without holding the right to publish musical works, and not paying the original songwriters royalties. Moreover, revenue generated from advertising on these websites is typically kept by the website owners as profit or used to cover the website's maintenance costs.
Free internet tablature sites often attempt to defend themselves by claiming to be educational providers or non-profit organizations, even if not formally registered as such. This leads to considerable difficulty justifying the service as 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 disputed, largely because websites have thus far only been threatened with legal action; the issue has yet to be taken to court.
As of Monday 12 December 2005, distributing free tablatures of copyrighted music using the internet was considered illegal by the music industry in the US. By early 2006, an unprecedented legal move was taken by the Music Publishers' Association (MPA), initiating legal action against tablature websites that hosted interpretations of songs and music. The Music Publishers' Association (MPA) had been pushing for websites offering free tablatures to be shut down. MPA president Lauren Keiser said that their goal is 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. One of the proposed solutions is an alternative compensation system, which allows the widespread reproduction of digital copyrighted works while still paying songwriters and copyright owners. In addition, there are now a number of "legal" services offering guitar tablature that have been licensed by music publishers.
One site, MetalTabs.com, contacts the bands themselves for permission to post tabs. Few bands have declined the request.
Mxtabs.net had been closed down due to complaints from copyright holders. However, as of 23 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 (other than figuring the songs out for themselves). 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 29 February 2008, MXTabs.net relaunched as the first legitimately licensed site designed to provide musicians with access to free tabs, while also compensating music publishers and songwriters for their intellectual property. Similar to other user generated content sites, MXTabs.net users are encouraged to create, edit, rate, and review their own tablature interpretations of their favourite songs. However, unlike other user-generated content sites, only songs that have received explicit permission from participating copyright owners will be made available online.
On 17 July 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(s) immediately created a website named Music Student and Teacher Organization (MuSATO) to attempt to reposition themselves from an illegal-copyrighted-materials provider to an "education provider". MuSATO's main objective is to use fair use as their rationale to publish tablature free of charge. By claiming to be an educational provider, they do not have to obtain publication rights nor pay royalties to the original composers. MuSATO claims to be educational by classifying users downloading tabs as "music students" and transcribers as "music teachers".
Furthermore, MuSATO also argues that internet guitar tablature does not infringe upon publishers' copyrights because the tablatures it provides does not contain rhythmic information and therefore is not an entirely accurate representation of the song. However, it did not note that some lyrics provided are copyrighted. It has since removed lyrics from all tablature in an attempt to appease the NMPA. Tablature is not directly provided to users unless it is through the forum, where members link to other websites hosting tablature.
GuitarTabs.com has been contacted by the NMPA and MPA with similar copyright infringement allegations. The NMPA and MPA have also threatened Guitar Tab Universe with similar legal action. A copy of the certified letter received by the site owner, along with a brief note similar to the one posted on Mxtabs, has been posted on their website.
OLGA.net is another tablature site that has been "taken down" after receiving letter from lawyers representing the NMPA and the MPA.
Since the late 1990s, Ultimate Guitar Archive has remained the largest uninterrupted, user-submitted guitar tablature site on the web. With the advent of YouTube they also offer user submitted video guitar lessons for songs.
A more recent development in the continued move towards legal tablature, is the latest announcement by I-Tab Limited, based in Maynooth, Ireland, launching a range of dedicated touch screen tablature players. Linked to a copyright-cleared library of tabs and backing tracks, this development underscores the shift in online tablature to more stable and verified content base.
I-tab.com   launched their 5" portbale touch screen tab player billed as "The Worlds First Electronic Songbook" at the world renowned NAMM Show in January 2010. The first units are scheduled to reach distributors and retailers towards the end of March 2010, with the company rolling out more fully featured "PRO" units and some larger players to scroll full score over the next year or so. The i-tab players use a proprietary tab syntax that scrolls tabs and chords in perfect time. The unit also plays backing tarcks along with the notation and offers users free tuition videos and paid cover video lessons. The "PRO" version of the i-tab will be previewed at the Frankfurt Musikmesse Show in April. Amongst the enhanced features is the ability to alter the tempo and/or key of backing tracks and tabs simultaneously without affecting pitch or quality. It is also rumoured that the first i-tabs may launch with a unique live chord display to help users throughout the song.
Tablature (or tabs for short) is a way of notating music in a way that is easy to understand and easy to notate in digital form. Tablature is most common for guitar, bass (guitar), and drums, though tablature may exist for other instruments. One advantage of tablature is that it does not require the reader to be able to read standard music notation. There are, however, some pitfalls to tablature notation. For guitar, it doesn't usually show the rhythm or fingering of the song. So in order to be able to play a piece of music from tablature, it is essential to have heard the song before and be reasonably familiar with it.
Tablature is written on lined paper similar to normal music paper (called a music staff). For guitar, each line corresponds to a string; thus there are 6 lines (4 for bass). Numbers are used to indicate which string to pick and which fret to stop. For example:
e|-0---0---0---0--------- B|----------------------- G|----------------------- D|----------------------- A|----------------------- E|-----------------------
Means you pluck the top E string 4 times on the open string.