Is anyone familiar with some freely available guide explaining in detail how to read Bach's organ tablature notation?

Apparently, Bach was very comfortable in using the tablature notation, especially in his youth, probably because it saved him a lot of time when copying music, not to mention the paper, due to its compactness. Supposedly, the great Passacaglia in C minor, BWV 582 was originally written this way.

Here is a great example of the notation, Fantasia in C minor, BWV 1121:

Fantasia BWV 1121 in organ tablature notation

Now, I can compare this to the sheet music version (which is available on IMSLP, for example) and I can figure out some patterns (it's very similar to our modern abc notation, for example), but without some guide on the symbols, and considering the fact Bach's handwriting is at places unclear, it makes it very difficult to figure it out.

  • 5
    Wow, I didn’t know this existed, it’s kind of weirdly beautiful. Even if no one can answer, I’m glad to know about it. Dec 23, 2018 at 1:25
  • 2
    Yes, I find it fascinating and quite beautiful. I think it presents Bach in a more personal light. Bach's beautiful handwriting in standard notation, his beautiful, wavy beams, his very legible style, that's all very well known, but here we see Bach in a different light, when he had to quickly write something down for his personal use, he didn't bother drawing staff lines on the page, but used this shorthand.
    – Kresimir
    Dec 23, 2018 at 7:49

2 Answers 2


Hope these pages help. They should answer most of your questions.

https://peakd.com/classical-music/@partitura/german-organ-tablature-explained-part-1 https://steemit.com/classical-music/@partitura/german-organ-tablature-explained-part-2

  • 3
    Welcome to Music.SE, Dan! Would you be able to summarize these two pages in your answer to help protect the information in case the links ever go down?
    – Richard
    Feb 15, 2023 at 12:29

I'm not familiar but may be this sites will help you going on:

http://www.bach-cantatas.com/Scores/BWV1121-Tablature.htm https://www.johnmckean.info/single-post/2017/04/23/Introducing-“Möller”-–-A-Music-Font-for-German-Organ-Tablature https://www.talkclassical.com/45168-organ-tablature-what-how.html "Books on music notation like Willi Apel's The Notation of Polyphonic Music and Richard Rastell's The Notation of Western Music have chapters on keyboard and lute tablatures. Keyboard tablatures use letters or numbers to represent pitches. There were different systems used in different countries. Bach apparently read keyboard tablature and would sometimes use it to notate music in the margins of pages when all of the staves were filled.

One could also look up tablature in the New Grove Encyclopedia of Music. "


Your Answer

By clicking “Post Your Answer”, you agree to our terms of service and acknowledge you have read our privacy policy.

Not the answer you're looking for? Browse other questions tagged or ask your own question.