Early History of Tablature

Tablature (Lat. Tabulatura, from Tabula, a table or flat surface, prepared for writing; Ital. Intavolatura or Intabolatura; Fr. Tablature; Germ. Tabulatur).

  1. The word applied to their list of rules by the Meistersingers from the ‘tables’ upon which they were recorded.
  2. A system of indicating musical sounds (in general use between the 15th and 18th centuries for the music of certain instruments) which, not following normal notation, made use of letter, numbers, or other signs. The chief difference of principle between notation and tablature is that in the former pitch and time values are combined in one sign; in the latter two are necessary. (It will be seen that some guitar tablature is an exception to this.) Of this system there are two different classes:
    1. That in which the signs employed directly indicated the musical note. To this class belong most organ and clavier tablature; rarely that for string and wind instruments; and, in the rare cases in which notation was not used, that for vocal works.
    2. That in which the signs employed indicated the musical notes only through the medium of frets, stops, or keys – that is, where the sign indicated the fret on the string, the hold of the pipe or the number of the key on the keyboard where the finger should rest in order to produce the required note. To this class belongs tablature for all the different varieties of Lute (Theorbo, Arch-lute, Chitarrone, etc.), for Mandora, Cittern, Angelica, Calichon, Orpharion, Vihuela da mano, Guitar, Viols, Violin, etc., also for wind instruments and (rarely) keyboard.

Tablature of the First Class

It was chiefly in Germany that tablature of the first class was used, other countries, with few exceptions, employing notation for keyboard music, and tablature of the second class for that of other instruments.

The word was, however, often and wrongly used for organ and clavier music which was printed in ordinary notation: Tablature des Orgues, Espinettes, etc. Intabolatura d’ Organo. German organ tablature is probably the oldest of any of the systems which were in use during the 16th and 17th centuries, and the most ancient examples are of a mixed notation and tablature, the former for the right hand, the latter for the left hand.

This particular variety was in use in southwest Germany only between 1440 and 1530, and is not to be confused with the mixed notation and tablature used for songs with accompaniments.

The ordinary or normal kind was a simple and fairly elastic method of indicating the notes by means of letters without the assistance of the stave. The various octaves were differentiated by different styles of letters, and were called great, little, one-line, two-line, etc. octaves, according to those letters.

Sharps were indicated by means of a little tail attached to the letter, and the confusion of such a system is exhibited in the fact that, for the greater part of the time when keyboards tablature was in use, the scale possessed but one flat – b flat. There were considerable variations in the manner of writing the different octaves, and the following three different explanations of the keyboard will be of use in transcribing the signs.


The compass in the first two examples is from


and in the latter the short compass in the bass may be seen by the two lowest tones occupying the black keys otherwise sounding f sharp and g sharp.

Although Praetorius (Syntagma Musicum, 1615) recommended a better differentiation of intervals (the tail pointing up for a flat, down for a sharp), the signs given above continues in general use as long as tablature was employed for keyed instruments.

Time values had separate signs attached to them, and the following were usual:


A dotted note was indicated the same way as in notation, i.e.,


Rests were indicated as follows:


The others having the same signs as the notes themselves, only being attached to no letters there was no confusion. When notes of identical value followed each other their tails were generally connected:


These signs were placed above every part in the music, i.e., in a polyphonic composition of four parts each one had its sign attached, so that there should be no misunderstanding in playing them together. This method, as will be seen, was a much more thorough going one than that employed by lutenists in setting their polyphonic arrangements. An illustration follows, taken from Amerbachs’ book referred to above, together with a transcriptions of the same, and it will be noticed that d sharp is written for e flat repeatedly.


Tablature of the Second Class

With regard to tablature of the second class, it is acknowledged by Virdung that its first appeal was to those who ‘had not learned singing,’ i.e., who could not read notation and therefore knew the required musical note only when it was found by means of the fret or stop. (‘Den andern dye das nitt singen kunden, den ist eyn modus erdacht, der tabulaturen, sye zu underweisen, uff den instrumenten zu lernen.’)

The practice, however, of employing tablature for the music of many instruments on which notes had to be ‘made’ by the performer, was a very general one among trained musicians as well as amateurs, and whether the system was musical or not it remained more or less unquestioned so long as the instruments were patronized. Under this class of tablature there are two special divisions, i.e.,

Tablature Without Lines

This is the least important division, as it includes only German lute tablature of the 15th and 16th centuries. The inventor of this uncouth system was Conrad Paumann (c. 1473), Munich. He was celebrated as an organist as well as lutenist, and was blind besides.

There were critics of the system from the beginning, and Agricola makes merry over it, saying that only a blind man could have been capable of inventing it. Its unusual ways were probably the reason that the fame of early German composers for the lute never went very far away from home, for not until they discarded it for the French method do we find them taking their proper place.

That there was some national pride and jealousy concerned in keeping it up as long as possible seems probably, for Melchior Newsidler tried to introduce Italian tablature into his country in the middle of the 16th century, only to meet with the great opposition and some reproaches.

It finally died a natural death at the end of the 16th century, 1592 being the date of the last published collection. French tablature was thereafter employed in Germany exclusively.

The system being invented in the days of lutes of five strings, its alphabet (which indicated the frets) fitted the five strings and no more.

When a sixth became common, as it did early in the 16th century, other signs had to be invented. The ordinary alphabet therefore began on the tenor or Mittelbrummer, the string next to the lowest in the usual six string lute.

The letters read across the finger board, not down the strings as in Italian and French systems; open strings were indicated by large numerals.

A seventh string, which was used by many Germans in the 16th century (although it was common to lower the Grossbrummer a whole tone when demanded by the compass of a piece, a practice known as playing im Abzug), further added to the confusion by being sometimes indicated in capital letters, the same as Judenkunig employs for the Grossbrummer; but as this seventh string was not stopped very often it did not so much matter.


Time values were indicated by signs above the letters, one sign doing work for al parts played together, and holding good until replaced by another sign. Most German tablature, however, especially up to the middle of the 16th century, repeats its signs over every letter. They are the same as those in organ tablature.

The music thus written was barred not altogether according to modern ideas, but on the whole fairly systematically. Time signatures were common, but not by any means invariable, some printers always ignoring them. The tablature was further complicated by signs for left hand fingering (sometimes right hand), generally one, two, three or four points (. .. … ….), and another sign, sometimes an asterisk, sometimes a single or double cross which indicated that the fret which it referred to must be held down as long as possible by the left hand finger stopping it. This was the only means lutenists had of arriving at contrapuntal effects.

The tuning in use in Germany throughout the 16th century was what was universally called the ‘normal’ tuning:



tablature7That is from the lowest to the highest, but this often varied according to the size of the lute. Praetorius mentions seven different sizes and in any case the pitch was by no means definite, for the top string was only tuned as high as it could bear and the other strings accordingly. All instruction books in all countries make a particular point of this (to quote only one, Thomas Robinson’s Schoole of Musick, 1603, ‘first set up the treble so high as you dare venter for breaking,’ etc.), so that the actual key in which the transcriptions of lute music are made reproduces the original with no exactitude of pitch. The intervals are the only important consideration. An example of German lute tablature is now given, together with a literal transcription.


Tablature With Lines

The tablature which made use of lines includes all that except the German kind which we have already discussed. The lines, when tabulating music for plucked string or bowed instruments, indicated the strings; when for the pipe they indicated the holes; when for the keyboard they referred to the four parts of music, Cantus, Altus, Tenor, Bass. As the examples of the latter kind of tablature are comparatively few, being confined to some Spanish organists, they may be here dismissed with the explanation that the forty two keys of the keyboard, from


Were numbered and the numbers were placed upon the four lines representing the different voice parts.

Tablature, French and Italian, for instruments belonging to the lute tribe, is by far the most important of all, and it extends over three centuries – from the early 16th century to the early 19th century. The principle made use of by both kinds was the same, although details varied considerably.

It may be roughly said that Italian tablature was confined to its own country and to Spain (with here and there exceptions to be met with in England and Germany); French tablature was adopted in France, the Netherlands, England, and Germany in the 17th and 18th centuries.

The French kind is undoubtedly the earliest in origin, but the earliest known examples of lute tablature are Italian. This latter system made use of six lines (some time before the six string lute was common in the rest of Europe) upon each of which were placed numbers to indicate frets. (The numbers were sometimes upon, sometimes above the line.)

The lowest line represented the highest string and the numbers began at the first fret, repeating themselves down each string, the open string being indicated by the figure nought (0). Above the ninth fret Italian tablature progressed in either Arabic or Roman numerals with points above them, i.e., 10 or X, 11 or X, 12 or X. The chromatic scale would therefore appear as follows:


When diapasons, or extra bass strings became general, they were indicated by numerals above the top line, which varied with different printers, some using Arabic, some Roman. As a rule the following are met with:


Indicating the 7th to the 13th string, or the 1st to the 7th string (octave) below the bass. As no lute before the beginning of the 17th century had so many diapasons these signs are of course lacking in 16th century tablature – until about 1590 when they commence.

Time values were indicated by the same means described above under organ tablature, although the signs employed by different printers naturally varied in small details. As a rule, except in the earliest books where the signs are repeated for every note, they did duty for as long as the value remained unchanged.

Later on, toward the end of the 16th century, and generally throughout the 17th century, ordinary notes were used, rather than the signs described above:


There were further signs for fingering (mostly right hand, indicated by one point under the letter tablature13 for the thumb, and two points tablature14 for other fingers); signs for holding the fingers down on the frets, indicated by tablature15; slurs and bows for legato playing; signs for arpeggio, tablature16; for shakes, two points above a letter tablature17, or a capital T under a letter, tablature18.

The following example, with transcription according to the normal tuning, which prevailed until the middle of the 17th century, will illustrate what has been said:


By the French method the tablature lines (of which for the better part of the 16th century there were but five, after that six) were reversed, the top line representing the highest string, the bottom the lowest. Moreover, letters of the alphabet were employed instead of numeral, the open string being indicated by a, the first fret on each string by b, the second by c, and so on. The ascending chromatic scale, from tablature20, was therefore written thus:


(In five line tablature frets on the sixth string were indicated by letters underneath the fifth line.) Diapasons, which were not in use until after 5 line tablature had become superseded by that of six, were indicated by letters underneath the bottom line, and varied a good deal according to the tuning.

When there was but one diapason (during the early years of the 17th century) it was generally, at least in England, tuned a fourth below the bass or sixth string and stopped like the other strings. When there were two diapasons, the second was tuned a whole tone below the first. In this case the were indicated as follows:


Where diapasons increased to four, five or (in theorboes) six, they were tuned in descending diatonic intervals, and appeared as follows, according to the key of the piece:


These, being often coupled with octaves, like some of the ‘fingered’ strings, we sometimes find (in the 18th century) a direction for the pair to be played as two separate tones; in which case it was indicated by a capital and a small letter, tablature24 which, translated, would sound tablature25.

Time values were written in the same way as in Italian or German lute tablature, except that the tails were scarcely ever run together, and in the 17th century notes, together with a very free version of them, became general, tablature26. What has been said of bar lines in German lute tablature holds good for Italian and French; also the use of time signatures. Fingering signs (much the same as Italian, except for the use of a p or the number 1 for the right hand thumb – tablature27); tenues or signs for holding the finger on the fret, (expressed by a stroke or bow under the letters tablature28; estouffements or signs for suddenly deadening the sound of a string (tablature29); called the Tut by Mace, and indicated tablature30; arpeggio tablature31; and numerous signs for ornaments of which the following are most commonly found in French and German collections of the 17th and 18th centuries; shakes and mordents (the signs generally at the right or left of the letter, sometimes below) tablature32; appoggiatura tablature33; the vibrato tablature34; besides these Mace has the following, whose explanation is lengthy and best found by referring to his Musick’s Monument, 1676 – the Elevation tablature35, single relish tablature36, and double relish tablature37.

It will be seen that the same sign employed by different lutenists meant sometimes two quite different ornaments, and this confusion makes any study of lute ornamentations extremely complicated.

The normal tuning mentioned above gave place generally, in the middle of the 17th century to what was known as the normal French tuning


(although others besides were frequently employed, notably by Mace), and with this key we may transcribe the following illustration.


Tablature of all the other strings instruments, with one exception (the short hand kind employed for guitar music), is founded on one of those systems for the lute already explained, and it is only necessary to know the tuning of the instrument in order to be able to transcribe.

The French method was by far the most general, and the only variations consisted in the number of lines employed. These followed the number of strings upon the instrument up to six (very exceptionally eight) beyond which the strings were indicated in some such way as lute diapasons were. 16th century Germans used their own tablature for the Viols and Violin while the French and Italian methods were employed in other countries for instruments of those families.

Much Gamba music in England was written in tablature (called Lyra or leero way), and a great many collections of this have been and still are mistaken for lute music. The test is to observe whether there are any gaps in the letters of the chords; where there are none throughout a collection it may be safely considered viol music, as of course chords played by a bow could not leave out any string, and lutenists rarely made their chords so close as not to do that fairly often.

As there were a number of ways of writing guitar music, the confusion of these is sometimes considerable. During the 16th century it was written in ordinary French or Italian lute tablature (numbers or letters on four or five lines according to the number of strings); but in 1606 Montesardo brought out a method (Nova invention d’intavolatura per sonare le balletti sopra la chitarra spagniuola senza numeri e note) which was adopted with modifications and additions by all countries, although not to the exclusion of the earlier method.

It was a kind of shorthand, a series of letters and signs to indicate whole chords; and it differed from all other tablature by the fact that in each sign employed both pitch and time values were combined. The following is the table of signs with their translation and a transcription. Montesardo’s tuning of the guitar was the normal one, and resembled that of the lute without the chanterelle


Although the pitch varied as it did in lute tuning, depending upon the amount of stretching the highest string could bear. The three highest tones were coupled with unisons, the two lowest generally with octaves, although this was not invariable. (In the transcription the octaves are given, but not the unisons.)


Time values were indicated by capital and small letters, the former having twice the value of the latter; dotted notes were represented by letters with dots tablature42.

There were no bar divisions, and as the above were the only signs employed, there was some confusion in differentiation, for example, a, aa standing for tablature43.

The manner of striking these chords (either from the lowest upwards, da giu in sui, or from the highest downwards, da su in giu) was further indicated by a line which divided the letters from each other, letters below the line being struck upwards, above the line downwards:


Other methods, in either capital or small letters only, made use of bar lines, with strokes above or below the horizontal line to indicate upward or downward striking of the chords. The time values were sometimes indicated by notes, sometimes left vaguely to the imagination.


Mersenne’s Harmonic Universelle, 1637, gives the Italian and Spanish methods translated as follows into French tablature, using the alphabet only as far as P. (The open strings are implied.)


In Spanish signs it will be seen that the dot beside the number indicates the minor of the chord represented by a number without the dot. This kind of shorthand was of great convenience in indicating the accompaniments to songs, for the economy of space resulting from the lack of stave was considerable:


Different masters of the instrument somewhat varied the chords of the alphabet according to their own fancy, and later ones added many new, which were generally explained in a table prefixed to the music. Another tuning was also in use later in the 17th century.


Some guitarists who employed ordinary lute tablature with its time values, indicated by the tails of the latter the striking upwards or downwards of their chords, thus:


Others of the later date, of whom Francesco Corbetta is the best known, employed a combination of ordinary lute tablature with the shorthand alphabet, and this of course was much better suited to solo music. It will be seen from the illustration that Corbetta makes use of the ordinary time values, while for playing the chords he uses strokes above or below the line:


He also advises that the fourth string should be coupled with an octave instead of unison, which looks as if unisons were general in the lower strings. His reason is that the ‘harmony’ is thereby improved (‘les deux unisons ne composent point d’harmonie’), and indeed the chief defect of this kind of tablature is the anomalous ‘harmony’ it sometimes produces, chords frequently lacking their fundamental notes, even at the beginning or end of pieces, a defect which not even Corbetta could remedy.

Signs for fingering, tenues, ornaments, legato, etc. were also freely used in guitar tablature, being in some cases identical with those used by lutenists. After the fashion of lute playing began to make way for that of the guitar, tablature for the latter instruments took on many of the characteristics of the other, especially in regard to solo music, and we find the same tables of signs which are met with in 17th and 18 century lute collections.

Tablature for wind instruments (German flue, hautboy, flageolet, etc.) also employed lines (six, seven or eight) which represented the particular hole to be stopped. This method, founded on the same principle as lute tablature, lasted into the 18th century, but did not survive the better known system.

The music indicated by dots or small strokes on six lines, and when all the holes are open by tablature51; a cross through the stroke refers to the ‘pinching notes’ or octave higher than the ordinary dots. Time signatures are indicated the same way as in lute tablature. Ornaments (beats and shakes), slurs, etc. are also freely used. The method may be studied in the following illustration:


Printed tablature books are legion, and range from the earliest Italian publication (Petrucci, 1507) to as late as 1760 (in MS. to the early 19th century), lute tablature beginning as well as ending the list.

The name tablature was, probably even later than this, used for figured bass (in the 17th and 18th centuries this was often called Theorbo tablature, because of the strictly accompanying qualities of that instrument), and we might even apply it to our own tonic-sol-fa system.