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I am familiar with guitar tabs which are much easier to learn and read than sheet music. Mainly because it is a direct mapping from the notation to the guitar frets; you don't have to do any translation really. The strings are displayed on the tablature, and the numbers indicate the fret position. Sheet music, on the other hand, requires you to memorize a system and then translate that system to the guitar's fret board. However, once you learn it I guess you could more easily transfer the skill to other instruments.

I am wondering if tablature is likewise easy for the piano. I have just encountered it so haven't learned it yet, but I wanted to see if it was easier to use than sheet music like the guitar. I can't really imagine how it would work, because you probably don't think of the keys as numbers 1-88, and maybe it's possible to hit more than 10 notes at a time, so it's not mapped to your fingers. But yeah I will need to learn it better, but wanted to ask first if it was useful and/or easier than sheet music for piano.

  • I think the closest thing to what you're looking for is "lead sheet symbols" or "chord symbols". – Kevin H Aug 30 '18 at 2:34
  • Any notation is easy to read after you've used it enough. – Carl Witthoft Aug 30 '18 at 11:19
  • @CarlWitthoft That is just not true. There are a lot of conceivable notations that would never, ever get easy to use no matter how long you train, because they intrinsically impose cognitive work on you that can't be abbreviated. We never see the worst systems because they're so bad that they don't survive, but that doesn't mean all existing methods are equivalent. E.g., current notation makes no distinction between minor and major seconds, and as a result they're harder to tell apart than it has to be - remembering accidentals and doing the math will never be as easy as observing distances. – Kilian Foth Aug 31 '18 at 8:09
  • @KilianFoth ok, but that's kind of the pathological case. – Carl Witthoft Aug 31 '18 at 12:58
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There are 3 major downsides I can think of when using this type of music writing:

  • There aren't many songs written in this notation for piano.
  • Completely lacks notes durations (this is where it gets a lot simpler than traditional).
  • Unlike guitar, it gets more complex to read when mixing different notes or rythms with each hand.

It might be simpler to learn but particularly for piano I believe it's very limited. Learning the traditional way it's hard and will take longer but will give you a very solid base not just for piano but for western music in general.

However, it's true that many people that don't want to be professional or proficient in music (myself included) don't want to spend this much time learning. Unfortunately there is no "easy sheet" for piano (there are fakebooks, but still require some knowledge) as its nature gives the possibility of multiple notes and rythms at the same time, unlike most other instruments.

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Just my thoughts: tablature is easier for guitar mainly because the guitar has multiple string/ fret combinations for each note. Translating from the note in the sheet music to these combinations and then deciding on the fly which one is easiest to play is the tricky part, and the person writing the tab has figured out one solution for you.

On a piano, you have a 1-1 mapping between the notes and the keys, and with a little practice translating between the sheet music and the keys is not much harder than translating from tablature to the keys, and the geometric arrangement of the notes conveys whether you're moving up or down without having to parse each symbol. Flats and sharps make things a bit harder, but that's manageable. One tricky aspect of playing piano is deciding which finger to use for what key, and tablature doesn't help you with that either.

Besides, the tablature example that you linked to has a lot of problems:

  • glossing over the difference between flats and sharps makes no sense in terms of music theory. Referring to the "b flat" in the F scale as an "a sharp" feels just wrong to me - the note replaces the unmodified "b", not the "a".

  • as EzLo has pointed out, note durations and rhythms become tricky to write. Many guitar tabs are sloppy in that respect, and expect you to listen to the piece and figure things out on your own, whereas piano scores are usually meant to convey how to play the piece without having access to a recording.

  • with chords, you need to read each individual letter. With sheet music, an experienced pianist sees the shape of the notes stacked on top of each other and knows "Ah! Triad, root position" and only needs to figure out the root note. Maybe it's possible to get the same speed with tablature eventually, but I'm not sure.

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I'll go to an extent that tab makes it easier to play stuff on guitars. There's good and there's bad. The timing on good tab is real notation - so learning and playing that, you're half way to playing real music! Without the timing, the notes can be played with whatever timing the player thinks - hardly playing what the original sounded like. Also, tab shows where the writer thinks it would be played. Any number of students question why there, why not here, where it's easier, more effective, sounds better, etc.

Your statement that it's easily transferrable to other instruments? Which ones? And how?

'Tab' for piano does work, and maybe it's more accurate, because one note can only be found in one location. But for me the bottom line (and this goes for tab on guitar/bass too) is that with the extra bit of effort, you've armed yourself with a totally transferrable skill, if you learn what the tadpoles on the washing lines is all about. Heck, it's even transferrable to drums and percussion. Bonuses are always good to have, and being able to understand 'proper' sheet music is a heck of a bonus for that extra mile of travel. 'Painting by numbers' came to mind while this was being read.

The piano tab I came across on Wiki doesn't do a lot for music. Only sharps (capital letters)? That's plainly wrong. Just like so many guitar sites that eschew the use of flats! O.k, with piano the limitations are down to lower case and caps, but it's inaccurate, and frankly, somewhat Mickey Mouse. Downvoters - please quote that...

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Standard note systems are sort-of tabs for pianos. You get one note space per key, with the default notes (without sharps or flats) corresponding to white keys. The usage of both sharps and flats (and even double sharps and flats) is important since it makes scale positions correspond directly to note placement which simplifies the planning of fingerings: three positions further implies three fingers (possibly requiring wraparound) further as long as no non-scale notes interfere.

As someone who switched from piano accordion to chromatic button accordion (which has a uniform layout of semitones, greatly facilitating transposition and playing by ear), it's been quite a nuisance to lose that direct mapping of a standard score to the keyboard, particularly when polyphonic material is involved. Sight reading really is the one thing that suffers.

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One important feature of traditional notation is that it is portable across keys (one can transpose) and it is transportable across instruments. Knowing guitar tablature isn't that helping in playing lute tablature or playing organ tablature.

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