AskDefine | Define tablature

Dictionary Definition

tablature n : a musical notation indicating the fingering to be used

User Contributed Dictionary



French, from Italian tavolare 'set to music'.



  1. A form of musical notation indicating fingering rather than the pitch of notes, commonly used for stringed instruments
  2. An engraved tablet etc.

Extensive Definition

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, angélique, 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. While today tablature is commonly used in notating rock and pop music, it is often seen in folk music, and was in fact common during Renaissance and Baroque eras. (In the context of guitar tab, standard musical notation is usually called 'staff notation' — even though tab is also written on a staff — or just 'notation').
Three types of organ tablature were also used in Europe: German, Spanish and Italian. There are several types of ocarina tabulature. Harp tablature was used in Spain and Wales.
An alternate (some would say incorrect) usage of the word "tab" is common on the internet, where it refers to conventional chord symbols (for harmony), or note names (for melody).

Origin and etymology


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 the "tabulature" is closer to original Latin word, and thus more correct etymologically, the adapted version "tablature" seems to be more wide-spread in modern English. As of 2007, Google searches indicate that word "tablature" (~6 560 000 hits) is used 27 times more frequently than "tabulature" (~335 000 hits). "Tabulature" is considered a "classical" spelling and is commonly used in academic music circles, particularly in relation to lute tabulature, 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 preceded by instrument name (i.e. "guitar tab", "bass tab", "organ tab") when required.


The 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 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.

Harmonica tab

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 methodology 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)
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.
Harmonic tab usually tells you the key of the harmonica the song is tabed 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

Guitar tab

Guitar tab 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 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 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.
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---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.
Guitar tab is not standardised 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.

Guitar tablature vs. standard staff notation

Generally speaking, guitar tablature is commonly used by informally trained musicians in folk, popular and rock music. By the end of the eighteenth century, in order to meet a demand for higher informational content, commercially published guitar music largely abandoned the use of tablature in favour of Standard Notation. It remained in informal use amongst amateurs, aficionados and within folk idioms such as flamenco, before a resurgence of published tablature took place in the latter decades of the twentieth century. Due to the popularity of the electric guitar, rock music and tablature's ease of fingering position determination (see below), tablature is now used by many guitarists in fields other than classical. Since tablature lacks rhythmic and other information (see below), most modern tablature software displays both staff notation and tablature.

Differences between systems

  • Direct visual representation
When compared to standard notation, tablature is a closer visual representation of the instrument's fretboard. It does not require any training for players to be able to read tablature therefore some find it easier and quicker to interpret.
  • Fingering position determination
Tablature removes the requirement for the player to determine the fretboard position within which the notated music is to be executed. Notes on the guitar can be played in different left hand positions and upon several different strings; for example the note C5 could be played on the third string at the fifth fret or on the fourth string at the tenth fret. In the case of fretted instruments such complexity makes the relationship between staff notation and playing technique less direct than in the case of the piano and many other instruments. Whilst standard staff notation can remove the string/fret ambiguity by further indicating the playing position (usually with Roman numerals), tablature does not contain this ambiguity.
  • Simple typewriter-font representation
Tablature can easily be represented as ASCII tab - a plain-text computer file, using numbers, letters and symbols to construct a crude representation of tablature. This characteristic makes it easy to distribute tablature electronically, a practice that has become very widespread; it is now possible to find free tablatures for virtually any popular music on the Internet, although a considerable number of those tablatures may be inaccurate and also illegal. (See Tablature (Legal Issue) below.)
  • Instrument-specific
Tablature is instrument-specific, while staff notation is generic. Tablature does not provide any skills transferable to other instrumental or general musical study. Tablature can only be read easily by a guitarist whilst music written in staff notation can be played on any suitable instrument. Reading solely from tablature compromises communication with other musicians such as flаutists or violinists who are commonly trained in the use of standard notation. Reliance solely upon tablature can prevent the guitarist from reading pieces that are composed for other instruments and/or are written in standard staff notation. In contrast, a guitarist who reads staff notation can understand such pieces, make necessary adjustments and play the music on a guitar.
  • Inherent harmonic or analytical information
The science of harmony and musical analysis is codified by recourse to standard musical notation. Standard musical scores enable musicians to utilise advanced tools for such analysis. These tools cannot be easily applied to, or from, tablature. Therefore the study of musical theory is hindered by reliance upon tablature.
  • Rhythmic information
Tablature notation lacks accurate information on rhythm and timing. Tablature writers sometimes provide limited rhythmic information by adding note stems, flags and beams above the numbers but this practice is not standardised. Computer software for tablature allows aural playback of tablature scores.
  • Distinction between musical parts
Multiple parts cannot be rhythmically distinguished within tablature notation. This is serious limitation when conveying information required for the proper rendition of multiple-part music on any polyphonic instrument.
  • Indication of pitch
Tablature notation instructs only upon where to play notes. It does not provide a visual indication of pitch and dynamic, unlike standard notation. It can be very difficult to get a general outline of the music by simply studying the tablature page without recourse to playing it through. In contrast staff notation allows musicians to sing from sight.

Lute tablature

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 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 tab. 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 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.
F____________________ D____________________ A____________________ F____________________ D____________________ A____________________
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. 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 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- a F- /a E- //a D- ///a C- 4 B- 5 A- 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 (semibreves and minims), 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, 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-

Musette tablature

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.

Computer programs for writing tablatures

Various computer programs are available for writing tablature - Fronimo by Francesco Tribioli and Django by Alain Veylit were designed for the purpose of engraving tabulatures for various lutes and other plucked instruments for Early Music. 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. Very good Opensource program written in Java is TuxGuitar, it supports writing notes, tablatures, playing them and exporting to many formats.

Legal issues

There has been a lot of controversy over the legal position of Internet free tablature. It is because many Internet tablature websites provide tablature free of charge while they do not legally have the right to publish musical works and do not pay the original songwriters any royalties. Moreover, revenue generated from advertising of those websites is typically kept by the website owners as profit or as website's maintenance cost.
Free Internet tablature sites often attempt to defend themselves by claiming as to be educational providers or non-profit organizations, even though they are not formally registered as such. Hence, they have considerable difficulty 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 warned with legal action; the issue has yet to be taken to court.
As of Monday December 12, 2005, distributing free tablature of copyrighted music using the Internet is considered illegal by the music industry. By early 2006, an unprecedented legal move was taken by Music Publishers' Association (MPA) where legal action against tablature websites that contain copyrighted interpretations of the songs and music. The Music Publishers' Association (MPA) had been 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. One of the purposed solutions is Alternative compensation system, which allow the widespread reproduction of digital copyrighted works while still paying the songwriters and copyright owners of those works.
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. had been closed down due to complaints from copyright holders. 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 (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 February 29, 2008, 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, users are encouraged to create, edit, rate and review their own tablature interpretations of their favorite songs. However, unlike other user-generated content sites, only songs that have received explicit permission from participating copyright owners will be made available online.

Guitar Tab Universe

On July 17, 2006, Guitar Tab Universe (GTU) posted a letter on its homepage that its ISP had been jointly warned 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 re-position 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 as an education provider, they will not have to obtain any publication right before publishing and do not need to pay any royalties to original composers. MuSATO claims educational relationship by classifying tab downloaders as ‘music student’ and tablature transcribers as ‘music teacher’. Despite what the name may suggest, as of 2008, MuSATO is not registered as an education provider.
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 failed to mention that the lyrics provided are actually copyrighted. has been contacted by the NMPA and MPA with similar copyright infringement allegations. The NMPA and MPA have also warned 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 the website. is another Tablature site that has been "taken down" after receiving letter from lawyers representing the NMPA and the MPA.

External links

tablature in Czech: Tabulatura
tablature in Danish: Tabulatur
tablature in German: Tabulatur
tablature in Spanish: Tablatura
tablature in French: Tablature
tablature in Italian: Intavolatura
tablature in Hebrew: טאבלטורה
tablature in Lithuanian: Tablatūra
tablature in Hungarian: Tabulatúra
tablature in Dutch: Tabulatuur
tablature in Japanese: タブラチュア
tablature in Norwegian: Tabulatur
tablature in Polish: Tabulatura
tablature in Portuguese: Tablatura
tablature in Russian: Табулатура
tablature in Finnish: Tabulatuuri
tablature in Swedish: Tabulatur
tablature in Turkish: Tab
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