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Under what circumstances should I write down "TAB" (tablature) or just regular music notation or both? I know how to read and write both of them, but I'm not sure which I should use for my songs when writing them down.

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    As with all writing, it is good to consider your audience. Who is the music for? What do they prefer? – amalgamate Feb 20 '15 at 16:11

12 Answers 12

25

Standard music notation and Tablature (Tab) can both tell a guitarist what notes to play. But each can do certain things better than the other.

Tablature is a common and increasingly popular form of music notation for stringed fretted instruments. It has the advantage of a very short learning curve and does not require extensive study to learn. It is very intuitive as it is based on a visual representation of the strings and numeric indicators for which fret. So a guitarist does not have to know anything about reading standard music notation to read tab.

With tab, I can easily look at a 2 on the third string (third line) and I immediately know to put my finger behind the 2nd fret on the third string and play that note. I don't even have to know what that note is called to be able to play it! Many guitar teachers are using tab with their students and it is becoming more and more popular everyday because of it's simplicity and other factors that give it an advantage. In fact, many guitar players I know personally who can read both, tend to prefer tab.

Other things you can do with tab - relate to things you can do with a guitar that you cannot do on a piano. Things such as hammer on's, bends, slides, pull-offs and palm muting are more easily indicated on tab than on standard music notation.

On the other hand, there are things that standard music notation can do that tabs cannot. Standard notation is better for indicating quarter notes vs. half notes, vs. sixteenth notes. Standard notation has a key signature that will identify the key. But one of the most useful things that standard notation can do that tabs absolutely cannot, is allow you to easily visualize the melody. In standard notation you can see if the melody is ascending or descending just by looking at the notes - without even thinking about it - something that is impossible with tab. With tab you really have to sit down and either play it or try to figure it out like a long division math problem.

If you had to do just one, I would write tab for a guitarist, as it is far more likely that the guitarist will be able to read tab and you can more easily convey the techniques unique to stringed instruments (hammer on, pull off, etc.).

But since you are well versed in both Tab and Standard Notation, I really think the best thing you can do for all guitarist, is write them both. Both may contain information that the guitarist will find valuable.

Take myself for example. I actually prefer to see music for guitar written as tab -with standard notation below. I can sight read tab - so I would know how to translate what is written on the tab to the guitar fretboard and play the indicated notes (even though I might not be able to tell you what the notes are). I can NOT translate the notes on the standard notation to my guitar - so in the absence of tab I would not be able to play them by sight. But the standard notation will tell me if the notes are going up or down and I could almost sing them. And I would instantly recognize the key by the key signature. And could easily see where the quarter notes became eighth notes and then sixteenth notes. So there is useful information that will benefit me as a guitarist, in both the tab and the standard music notation.

If, as a matter of practice, you always do both - you get the best of both worlds! And any guitarist will be able to play the music the way you instruct in your notation, whether they can only read tab, or prefer standard notation. Everybody is happy.

Hope that helps.

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    If you haven't already check out some software called Guitar Pro. It's a tab and standard notation editor, and as well as allowing you to write and edit both, it also displays the note value underneath the tab too. – Adam Feb 20 '15 at 14:03
  • @Adam there are actually several aps that do something similar. But most require you to still double check whatever parts are auto calculated - for accuracy. But definitely a big time saver. – Rockin Cowboy Feb 20 '15 at 17:44
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    I encourage you to learn sight reading for notation for guitar. It only took me a couple of weeks practicing a few minutes a day to get the hang of the first position. It's worth it! :) – blujay Feb 20 '15 at 19:03
  • @blujay Thanks for your suggestion. I see no value to me personally. I don't generally play other peoples arrangements in my work as a performing singer songwriter. And when I play covers, I just look at the chords and listen to any fills or lead lines and play by ear. – Rockin Cowboy Feb 20 '15 at 19:35
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I feel like tabs are always inappropriate, and are a horrible crutch for far too many guitarists that keeps them from understanding their instrument and music in general at a deeper level. If you need to indicate that a particular passage is to be played in a specific way, then there are good ways to do this (usually just indicating the position is enough) that don't condescend and just tell the player where to put his fingers.

That being said, full standard notation is sometimes inappropriate too. If I'm writing a rhythm part, it's silly to write the full chord on every single strum. There's an art to finding the right level of specificity and communicating that without flooding the page with extraneous or condescending information. Sometimes it's enough to just give chords and slashes and leave the voicing to the performer. Sometimes you care if it's low/open voicings or something thinner/higher and you can either write a position hint or I've sometimes just written "high voicings" on the part. Sometimes you want a specific voicing and I like to do that by writing out the full chord on the first note, but leaving the rest of the bar as rhythm slashes. If I want the guitarist to improvise arpeggios, I might write out one in the style I want in the first bar, but then just give chords and write "sim. ad lib" after that. In general, give just enough to be clear but treat the player as an intelligent and competent person.

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    Why do you think that tabs prevent understanding of music in general? – topo morto Feb 20 '15 at 12:22
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    @topomorto Probably because you lose information about scale degrees and harmony/key when you are using tab. You can still derive that information, but it's surface-level with standard notation. – NReilingh Feb 20 '15 at 14:11
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    It's surface level for diatonic music with standard notation. Standard notation deals with non-diatonic music awkwardly and arguably causes more confusion about music in general than tab, which as you say, doesn't say anything explicit about scale degrees and harmony/key (and doesn't claim to). – topo morto Feb 20 '15 at 14:17
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    @topomorto: tab notation deals with non-12-edo music awkwardly and arguably causes more confusion about music in general than stdard-not., which doesn't say anything explicit about the tuning system and string spacings (and doesn't claim to). — I would strongly argue that tonality (be it diatonic or pentatonic; standard notation can do both well) is a far more useful and general concept than equal temperament. – leftaroundabout Feb 20 '15 at 14:57
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    I would prefer spending time & energy learning & writing new music than learning to read standard notation. Interpreted one way, your statement effectively says, "I'd rather spend time learning new music than learning how to learn new music." That's like saying, "I'd rather spend time walking than learn to drive." That's fine if you're just walking around your back yard... ;) It takes a little time, but once you get the hang of it, you can learn new music much more effectively and quickly. I encourage you to give it a chance. It's really not as hard or time-consuming as you think. ;) – blujay Feb 20 '15 at 19:08
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I highly recommend using standard notation always. Even if your original intention is for the music to be read by guitarists only, if you use tab then other instrumentalists or vocalists will not be able to play what you've written. In many band situations, it can be useful for pianists, saxophonists etc to check out what the guitarist is doing - even if they're not playing the same part. But if you've written the part in tab, that becomes impossible.

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I don't like tabs because they tie you to a specific tuning, if you tune your guitar differently then tabs become quickly worthless. Also for each note you have to remember what is basically a 2 dimensional coordinate (fret number and string number) when only one value is needed for each note. And lastly they remove all notions of tonality, diatonic function etc, so essentially tabs are rote learning of finger positions instead of teaching you anything about music. They're the reason why many guitar players don't know the first thing about music theory.

And standard music notation is hard to decipher, even more so when you play jazz guitar solos that use all twelve notes. I think standard notation is unnecessarily convoluted, I think it's because it aimed to be simple as long as you stick to C major and its modes, then it gets progressively more complicated and ends up looking like this.

So what I do is simply write pitch classes from the root as integers, with the root as 0, and every other note as an integer up to 11. Notes in the octave below or above the main octave have a ↓ or ↑ appended to the number. Which key it's in is only written once next to the title or when it changes.

Here's an example

It's quite compact, very easy to read and write, it's not specific to any tuning system or instrument, makes it extremely easy to remember various scales as they're all just a series of unchanging numbers (for instance natural minor is always '0 2 3 5 7 8 10 0↑', double harmonic is always '0 1 4 5 7 8 11 0↑') that you can find as lists online, you can easily associate numbers with their diatonic function, it makes remembering things easier as lots of tunes share similar or identical patterns, transposing is a breeze since the numbers don't change, only the note which you consider to be 0. And it simplifies music theory a great deal as all scales, intervals, chords and so on are just a bunch of simple numbers, the very question "what note is the sixth in an Eb minor scale?" has no reason to be since all you need to know is that the sixth in a minor scale is always the number 8.

All you have to do is getting used to the maths of counting with frets and knowing which strings are off by either 4 or 5 semitones. I tuned my guitar in major thirds so it's always 4 semitones between strings which simplifies things tremendously, numbers are always the same position with respect to each other (also octaves are 3 strings away on the same fret and the notes of most triads are usually on adjacent frets), and I can still use the same notation as when I used a different tuning. And unlike with tabs figuring out how to actually play it on the guitar is left up to you, which is not a bad thing either (in major thirds tuning alternative finger placements are often viable so it's good to try different positions until you find what you like). With that approach with minimal practice you can even play phone numbers with ease.

If you play a lot of chords (which I don't) I guess you'd better combine the pitch class with the name of the chord as to keep things simple. Otherwise you can write simultaneous notes vertically in a column. As for structure if anything is repeated I now like to identify the block of notes that occurs more than once using a bracket in the margin, assign it a letter, then somewhere else write the structure using those letters, like for instance AABBAA' (A' would be a slight variant of A for instance).

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The advantage of tablature is that it can more easily show the exact shapes and fingerings to use, if that's important. Meanwhile, standard notation has a better-defined system for notating rhythms.

If the harmony of the piece is diatonic or largely diatonic, standard notation will give a much better view of the melodic and harmonic workings of a piece. If the piece is largely non-diatonic, then there won't be so much advantage here as standard notation is oriented around diatonic music.

The most important thing is your audience. If you're writing for people with little experience of standard notation, tab is going to be easier to understand, while people with experience of standard notation will likely find it easier than tab to sight-read from.

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The advantage is that tabs are easy to follow. But the disadvantages are that 1) too many players never develop their reading chops past tabs and can never function outside of the guitar world, which is where all of the other musicians live. 2) dove-tailing on #1 - tabs are only useful for a stringed-instrument player obviously, so attempting to communicate with a pianist or trumpet player, or singer, with guitar tabs would be pretty hard. 3) guitar tabs don't quite convey all the information that standard notation does, especially in terms of harmony and musical form.

Honestly in my own teaching - I only use tabs as a quick learning tool if I need to very quickly learn a guitar solo or part for my band. I don't teach it to my students until they've had several good months of standard notation.

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Standard notation, augmented with fingering indications, is the standard for classical guitar music, so for that genre always go with standard.

Other than that, base it on your intended audience and distribution.

Non-formally trained, and many formally trained, guitarists are more comfortable with tabulature as a means of communicating music. In addition tab only requires ASCII characters so it is easy to email or otherwise send by electronic means, however with modern networking technology, the advantage of "ascii only" has pretty much evaporated.

Non-guitarists, e.g. horn players, generally expect standard notation and cannot be expected to understand tab at all. Thus the parts of your music that will be played by non-guitars should be set in standard notation. See also JovialSpoon's answer.

As a final note, I'm unaware of any guitar specific techniques that don't have (more or less) standard representations in standard music notation. The only drawback is that the player usually has to infer on which strings which notes are to be played; this process is relatively easy if fingering numbers are used as is common in classical guitar notation, and sometimes string information is explicitly represented.

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I second Kenni Kuhlmann-Clark's opinion--and I'm a hard-rock/metal player. Musicians in my genre are not known for fluent sight-reading, but the fact is that reading standard notation is a fabulous skill to have. Once you're comfortable with it, you'll never bother with tab again when you write down your own ideas.

Before enumerating the positive reasons for this, let's first deal with a negative. Rockin Cowboy says above, "Things such as hammer on's [sic], bends, slides, pull-offs and palm muting are more easily indicated on tab than on standard music notation." That is simply false. Take a look at http://www.halleonard.com/bin/GuitarNotationLegend.pdf , a doc which has become the standard authority for all that stuff. It includes markings for not just tab but standard notation as well. I think you'll agree that the markings for palm mutes, etc., are in fact rather cryptic in both tab and standard-notation--but that's just the nature of the beast. When using systems designed mainly to describe straight-up, normally-played notes, trying to signal a special effect will always be an arbitrary business. The point is that this task is difficult in both tab and notation; and furthermore, many of the markings are the same for both systems! (Palm mutes are one example.) As a result, it's rather difficult to make a good argument that tab is somehow better or easier to understand in this regard. It's not. Neither system is any better than the other at this specific task, so it does not furnish a reason to prefer tab over standard notation.

OK, now on to the positives. First, standard notation is just a lot more efficient because it includes the rhythms as well as the notes all on the same staff instead of clumsily needing to include rhythm notation on its own staff above the tab. Therefore it saves you time when writing down your musical ideas; and it's more efficient to read later on because you don't need to look back and forth between the tab and the rhythm staff.

Second, standard notation is much better for band preparation too. You can grab a piece of music paper, write out the bass, keys, guitar & vocal parts and hand a copy of the sheet to the keyboardist, bassist and singer without further ado; they don't need anything else in order to learn the song for next week's practice. They'll look at the other parts to orient themselves as they learn their own part, and the band should have no trouble diving right into the tune at next rehearsal. BUT if you're depending on tab, you have to use the clumsy expedient of the additional rhythm track, and more importantly you can't include the keyboard or vocal parts on your sheet, so you have to go some other, clumsier, more time-consuming route to teach the keyboardist and singer their parts--usually one or more extra meetings prior to rehearsal, or maybe you give them a recording of their part which they must then figure out by ear. Once again: clumsier and more time-consuming for everyone involved. Bad deal.

A third advantage of standard notation is that it opens up the whole world of classical guitar sheet music. Even if you don't play classical fingerstyle, this still makes available 400-odd years' worth of musical ideas and inspiration. I've copped some great licks by dipping into the vast free online collections of often-obscure material, most notably the Boije collection at the Musik-och teaterbiblioteket, Music and Theatre Library of Sweden, and the Rischel & Birket-Smith Collection at the Copenhagen University Library. If you read standard notation already and didn't know about these sites, do an online search and get ready to be amazed (I'm not including links because those sometimes change; just do a search). If you don't read standard notation, get ready to be depressed at all the great music that's closed off to you. Or better yet, take the trouble to learn how to read. Then it won't be closed off anymore.

Like I said, once you become comfortable with standard notation, you don't look back.

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"Writing down" is for your own use. You use what gets the job done fast and reasonably reliable. I have on occasion pinned down melodies just using noteheads and nothing else, looking a bit like chant.

Communicating is a different thing. If you type in notes (and occasional string numbers) into a music typesetting program like LilyPond, you can pull out both notes and tablatures from the same input. That way you don't need to decide but can let each recipient tell you what he prefers, or just produce parallel tablature and notes anyway.

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What before How. When doing theory, standard notation is prefered, as it shows scales, ascending/descending, accidentals, etc. But afterward, TAB is superb for finding the optimal way to play it.

  • TAB is one person's way to play it. It may well not be the optimal, and cannot be seen as any way of finding the optimal. That in itself can vary player to player. – Tim Apr 14 '17 at 6:46
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(I guess some or most of the following was possibly written elsewhere above -- I didn't see it all before I posted)

If proficient at both, I believe that standard music notation ('sheet music') is the better option for the guitar 'musician'. This is especially true if it's used as a 'communication' tool where the sound of the piece of music is unknown to reader. (I've found that tablature is sometimes advantageous with a piece of music that you know the sound of beforehand (e.g., a famous song))

To be a complete musician on your instrument, you should be expected to be able to read sheet music (even if tablature at some level is preferred). Once you can read, you will understand that it is well worth the effort, and you will be so glad that you learned. Why? Because it can show you the musical structure of a piece, instead of just being physically diagramatical to an instrument -- you can 'picture' the music, and this, in turn, inspires you.

Also, realize that standard notation can be elaborated upon with the convention of numbers and symbols that have been used in guitar sheet music for decades. Roman numerals, numbers in circles, etc., can be placed alongside notes to aid in indicating positions, strings, fingers, and other aspects. This almost eliminates any need (or advantage) of using tablature.

Plus, once a guitarist can read fairly proficiently (and/or once you've become familiar with a particular piece of music), you might find that having that extra line of tablature will end up taking up too much space/paper, and cause much more (annoying) need to turn the page, or scroll down. You'll be able to focus on 'the picture' of the music better if the tablature is not 'in the way'.

Being able to read sheet music, I've always found that -- if the piece is easy, or once I've learned a piece that's not so easy -- I never again even look at any included tablature (and I wish I could remove it to save space, and prevent distraction).

An added benefit of at least including standard notation, along with tablature (if tablature is your main thing), is that another musician, playing a different instrument will be able to adapt/transpose the sheet music to their instrument. Guitar tablature would be useless to a trumpet player, for example, unless they happen to play guitar too.

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TAB (although it has been around for centuries) is only useful these days if you can listen to the tune and play along. TAB will not: state the tempo of a piece, the duration of the notes, or other technicalities, such as dinamic nuances. Notation, however will give more detail on how the peice was intended to be played. Which you choose, will depend on your intent toward your audience. If it is a popular tune and you want to present a guide to play along with a recording, then TAB will suffice. If it is a Jazz piece, which may require a deeper understanding of chord structure for improvisation, or a classical piece, then notation may be more helpful. Either way it is important to consider, music is a phenomenon and the various forms of notating it are merely an explanation of that phenomenon.

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