Keeping Tabs on the Debate Between Standard Notation and Tabulature

When I was VERY little, I would crawl up onto the piano bench and pretend to read the music that my mom had been practicing for her choir rehearsals. The tiny black notes seemed chaotic, and I’m sure that my plunking at that time would have been a little cacphophonic too. When I started learning to play piano in grade two, the notes straightened out as I began to corral them into lines. Now, when I look at music, I can hear it. It’s the most beautiful language in the world to me.

kid plays piano

Photo Credit: woodleywonderworks via Flickr

But language is about far more than written expression, and music even more so. It is about tone, expression, emphasis and, above all else, communication. So, here are my questions for you today: Does it matter how we come to learn a language? Do we need a common written expression to communicate? How do standard notation and tablature fit into this conversation?

Learning a Language

People learn in a variety of ways. Some learn best by seeing, others by hearing and still others by doing. Ultimately, a combination of all modes is most useful. For most musicians, this means learning to read standard notation, listening to talented musicians, and practicing. A lot. I know some incredible musicians who have learned to play entirely by listening and practicing. They can’t read music, but are talented in ways that I will never be, even though I read standard notation. These artists are often fantastic improvisers and self-aware of how they fit into an ensemble, because they have trained themselves to listen so carefully. Still others learn to play an instrument by reading standard notation and can sight-read almost anything without ever having listened to the piece. Incredible! Regardless of how the musician has learned the language, they are able to communicate emotions and ideas through their music to an audience.

Speaking the Same Language

Although it is easier to communicate with someone who shares your language, people are still able to communicate when they speak different languages. They use hand gestures, facial expressions, and body language. They teach each other their language and slowly learn to speak it. When musicians want to share their music with others, they write it down or record it for others to learn. Standard notation is a common language that allows musicians to communicate clearly. Guitarists often use tab as a way of notating and sharing music, and it can be incredibly effective for beginning musicians. Alternatively, musicians can listen to recordings and learn the songs by ear. Although reading standard notation can be the most consistent way to share written music, it is not the only way to communicate. This leads us to the standard notation versus tablature debate.

The Standard Notation Versus Tablature Debate

This week I learned how to read tab using ultimate-guitar.com. It was really easy. I enjoyed experiencing success early on, and I’m sure this appeals to lots of other beginners too. The only downfall was that the rhythm wasn’t notated, so I had to know the song’s rhythm before reading the tab. However, in a world with so much technology, it is easy to find a quality recording. Even with this in mind, in the music communities on university campuses, student-teachers and professors argue about teaching high school guitar students to read standard notation or tab. For me, this is a particularly interesting conversation. Here are some of the pros and cons of each.

Standard Notation

Pros

  • widely used
  • consistent
  • includes rhythm, pitch, dynamics, tempo, and other cues

Cons

  • it is difficult to learn
  • it takes a lot of time to learn
  • not as much guitar music is available in this form, especially for free online

Tabulature

Pros

  • easy to learn/ accessible
  • lots of guitar music is available in this form because amateur guitarists can learn how to play a song, record what they’ve learned using tab, and share it for free online

Cons

  • doesn’t indicate anything other than pitch (rhythm, dynamics, tempo, and other cues are not included)
  • amateur guitarists post their versions of tab online, which may have mistakes

I think that hidden in the rhetoric of this discussion is also the idea that standard notation is superior to tablature, in the same way that certain languages, like English, also hold privilege in global society, while many people discredit Indigenous oral languages in favor of written text. If teachers make the decision not to teach tab to their guitar students, it shouldn’t be to uphold dominant notions that privilege standard notation.

Dave Eichenberger, a professional guitarist, outlines the history of both tabulature and notation and explores the pros and cons of each in his post Cage Match: Standard Notation vs. Tablature. After thoughtfully weighing the pros and cons, he says, “Both have terrible disadvantages and huge advantages.” So why not use both?

 

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3 thoughts on “Keeping Tabs on the Debate Between Standard Notation and Tabulature

  1. Hmm I have never heard of tablature before. It’s a really interesting concept. I used to play the organ and flute, but my fluency in standard notation would have definitely worn off with no practise lately. I wonder if it would be the same with the other system?

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  2. I found your learning a language connection really interesting Sarah. My entire family has always been very involved in music as our mother is a music teacher. My oldest brother and I were very much classically trained and fall into your “standard notation” category. My other brother picked up guitar as a teenager and taught himself, much to our disdain, as we travelled weekly to the city for lessons at the Conservatory (and he he never had to come). It’s interesting now that my oldest brother and I currently pursue our music the least and my brother who learned reading tabs was recently just nominated for two Saskatchewan Country Music Awards.

    Now he did have standard notation training prior to picking up guitar, which I’m sure he would connect to much of his success. I’m curious as to how many professional musicians first learn to read music through standard notation as opposed to tab? I wonder home much genre dictates the method used to learn?

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