Guitar Notation


Fretted instruments are ancient. The Spanish vihuela’s repertoire spans about one hundred years during the fifteen hundreds. The repertoire of the lute an even longer time all the way to the time of Bach. The viola da gamba, a beautiful instrument of the string family also has marvelous music written for it.

One of the things that the music of these instruments had in common is that they were written in a special type of notation known today as tablature. 

During the time of Beethoven a new breed of fretted instrumentalists started to use the lingua franca of their day to notate their musical works. This notation, called staff notation, had become the dominant form of musical notation for vocalists, string players, wind players and keyboard players, and by notating their works in this language guitarists made a very clear statement: they were not part of a separate class of musicians, but one among a group of musicians. And their music needed to be taken as seriously as any other instrumentalists’ in the discourse of the ‘art music’ of their time.

The result has been an unquestioning acceptance of staff notation as the ideal form of notation for the guitarist.

Staff notation has some notable advantages:

  1. A particular musical pitch can be interpreted  in various ways decided by the player, either on one string or another.
  2. Different musical lines can be notated as separate entities.
  3. The music can be read by any musician, and guitarists can read the music of any musician.

While I agree that a guitarist today should be a fluent reader of staff notation, I would like to suggest three important points to challenge the accepted and universal use of staff notation for representing guitar compositions and in the teaching of guitar:

  1. Reading staff notation is not the best way to learn the guitar
  2. Reading simple staff notation is not the best way to learn to be fluent in reading complex staff notations
  3. Staff notation discourages the use of multiple tunings

Because of the latter deficiencies I have developed a specialised guitar notation which I call mTablature and which forms the basis of my Montessori Guitar Method.


Notation as a Motive for Activity

The goal of most modern notations have been total determinacy. Modern notations have added a wide range of signs and fingerings to add the greatest possible degree of specificity to any given score. It is possible, therefore, to specify:

  1. A particular pitch
  2. The string on which this pitch should be played
  3. The left hand finger which should play this pitch
  4. The right hand finger which should pluck this pitch
  5. The duration of this pitch, even while other notes are being played by other fingers
  6. A host of articulations to determine the character of the pitch such as attack, timbre or volume.

This kind of determinacy was entirely absent from early music scores. I would like to suggest that their absence is in fact an advantage. This is a controversial, and perhaps subjective statement, and one that would need elaboration beyond the scope of the present subject. Suffice it to say that every guitarist is different, and the solution of one guitarist may just be an obstacle to another. But more importantly, too much information has the tendency to hamper the spontaneity of the performer, and it is in this point that we find the definition of mTablaure as a notation which exists only as a motive to musical activity

What this means is that mTablature attempts to change the focus of modern guitar notation from a series of signs designed to most accurately represent the intentions of an all-knowing composer to a series of signs designed to initiate the playing of a spontaneous music. This is not to say that the work of the composer is now unimportant. It is simply to say that the composer’s intentions are one small part, balanced by the massive range of possibilities inherent in each performer. The ideal, therefore, would be a different performance from one performer to the next, and even from one moment to the next in a single performer.  I would argue that this was a feature of the scores and performances of early musicians, and is something vital to music-making that has been lost in the determinacy of modern scores.

In short mTablature seeks to move from a point of view that sees music as being absolutely represented in a score to a music which uses a musical score as a motive for musical activity. 

This is, therefore, the philosophy behind mTablature. The following will briefly outline its main features as a notation for guitarists and teachers of the guitar.


The Different Aspects of Guitar Playing

The guitar has different forms of playing which, in more complex pieces, are combined or interchanged. The more obvious ones are:

  1. Playing single line melodies (for example Bach’s Minuet in G or the Allemande of Bach’s d minor Partita for solo violin)
  2. Playing melodies with bass accompaniment (for example Bach’s Boureé in e minor)
  3. Playing chords with right hand patterns (for example Villa Lobos’ Estudio No. 1 or Leo Brouwer’s Etudes Simples VI)
  4. Playing melodies in the bass with treble accompaniment (for example the first few bars of Villa Lobos’ Prelude No. 1 or Brouwer’s Etude Simples No. 1)

To read a simple melody such as Twinkle Twinkle Little Star or Bach’s Minuet in G, in staff notation presents very few difficulties for the beginner guitarist. Once he or she knows which fret is which note it is simply a matter of deciphering  the score and playing each note one after the other. But to read the score of Brouwer’s Etudes Simples VI or Villa Lobos’ Estudio No. 1 requires a more complex knowledge of staff notation simply because one needs to be able to recognise the groups of notes that must be held together as a chord. Furthermore one must have internalised the various positions of a single pitch, for example the fact that ‘a’ can be played on either the g string or the d string. One can see, therefore, that it is the notation that creates the difficulty in these two pieces. The actual playing of these pieces presents far less of a problem to the beginning guitarist. Notation has thus become an obstacle. I would like to suggest, in contrast, that notation is always an aid to the performer and never an obstacle.

This is why these last two pieces are considered harder than Bach’s Minuet in G.

The problem is that these two pieces are not much harder than the Bach. And, in fact, to many guitarists they are easier to play. At the very least they present a new range of skills which are as easily learnt as the range of skills needed to realise the Bach. This means that:

  1. These skills are not arranged on a linear line with one learnt before, or as preparation to, the other
  2. These skills can be learnt at the same time, or in any order
  3. These skills can be used to reinforce each other.

A simple example:

A beginner who plays with flat fingers when playing Twinkle Twinkle Little Star will not find it much of a hindrance in playing the piece. But when they start to play a treble string harmonic accompaniment to the same piece they will soon find that the fingers need to be placed on the fretboard using only the tips of the fingers, and that the left hand should only touch the neck with the thumb and finger tips. The pupil will not need the teacher to remind him or her of this while they are learning the first melody, because the chordal accompaniment will have a control of error: the notes will not sound if the fingers are flat.

So the music itself will teach the student to place the fingers in an optimal way. He or she will be freed from the need to be watched over by a teacher whose job it is to tell the pupil to play with the finger tips because later on his or her flat fingers will become a problem. 


Playing Simple Melodies

The only argument against using tablatures to teach beginner guitarists to play simple melodies is that they will never learn to read proper notation. This is often repeated by classical guitar teachers who refuse to use tablatures in their teaching. They also believe that tablatures can never represent the subtleties of voice independence and phrasing that can be delineated in staff notation. Without getting into what will always remain a subjective discussion, I would like to suggest that tablature has two points in its favour in terms of teaching and learning the guitar:

  1. It can be used as a means to present many of the aspects of guitar playing
  2. It can be used to present many of the aspects of reading staff notation

In other words, without getting into whether or not tablature is a good or bad means of notating complex guitar music, I would like to suggest that it is a fabulous preparation for playing and reading advanced pieces.

Of course this requires a totally different approach to teaching where we apply Montessori’s simple principle of one thing at a time

Without going into the details of just what this type of teaching would entail (which will be outlines elsewhere), we can list the aspects of guitar playing and reading that are absorbed by the student who reads a piece of music in tablature:

  1. Tablatures introduce the convention of placing high notes above lower notes even though on the physical guitar high notes are below. This seemingly logical convention trips up many a beginner player
  2. Tablatures introduce the convention of reading from left to right rather than reading first one line and then another as we do in written language. Many a beginner will first read the top line of a stave, the go onto the next line and then another, rather than reading the notes which comes first on the whole stave.
  3. Tablatures can be used to introduce the fingering of the left hand.
  4. Tablatures can be used to introduce the combination of rhythms with melodic lines.

    and most importantly:
  5. Tablatures allow students to read pieces which are technically within their grasp, yet would be too difficult for their level of staff reading. This is not usually considered desirable, but it will be shown that a student who can play fluently at a high level can be taught to read staff notation with very little difficulty, especially  if they have had the indirect preparation for this which is inherent in an intelligent use of tablature and the other forms of mTablature.


Learning Staff Notation

Imagine teaching staff notation to a guitarist who:

  1. Can play complex pieces
  2. Understands rhythmic notation
  3. Has an advanced concept of right and left hand fingering
  4. Knows the names of the notes in all positions
  5. Can play any scale in any key, by ear

All that would be required is a simple presentation of the names of the notes as they appear on the staff. This can be done without the guitar itself as well as with the guitar using a range of Montessori-inspired materials and scores.

The end result will be a guitarist who can read fluently all the various aspects of guitar technique from single line melodies, chordal passages and melodies in the treble and bass with harmonic accompaniment. This guitarist will also be fluent in reading tablatures which would still be useful when reading early music and music in different tunings when the advantages of tablature far outweigh any possible negatives.


Derek Gripper