I read a forum post tonight by a ukulele player who referred to tablature in a beginner’s ukulele book as “cheater notation”. Such comments always make me cringe, so I thought I’d get up on my soapbox about it.
There is a prevailing notion that tablature is somehow inferior to staff notation (traditional sheet music). I could not disagree more. If you’ve studied the piano, harp or any monophonic instrument, staff notation should make good sense to you. It’s an excellent way to communicate music in written or printed form – for these instruments.
If, however, you’ve studied any stringed instrument, you have likely found that staff notation is only partially useful. When reading staff notation, a stringed instrument player must translate abstract notes to any number of possible fingerings on the fret board. Doing this “on the fly” is something only the most advanced players can manage. And I’m sure that, even for them, it’s a pain in the ass.
Tablature (tab, for short) actually provides more information than staff notation. It tells you not only the abstract note to play, but the precise location on the fret board to play it. Tab makes it possible to “site read” for a moderately experienced player. In other words, you can pick up a piece of music and play it – even if slowly and haltingly – on the first go. That’s a huge advantage over having to essentially arrange abstract notes from staff notation onto the fret board.
Because tablature is string and fret specific, it must be tailored to the specific instrument and tuning you’re playing. Mandolin tab, for example, is not very useful to a ukulele player. For this reason, tab has not been accepted as the universal written language for music, and that’s fine. It would be impossible to write tab for non-stringed instruments. So staff notation certainly has its place and is a sensible “standard” music notation that can be read and understood by any musician, regardless of the instrument they’re playing.
But that doesn’t mean that tablature is cheating. Tablature has been around at least as long, if not longer, than staff notation. Wikipedia places the earliest tablature in the 1300’s, while staff notation wasn’t formalized until at least a few hundred years later. Players of stringed instruments should not feel inferior in any way because they are using tab. They’re just being sensible, and they’re doing what stringed instrument players have done since music was written down. So lets stop with the inferiority complex, and lets have the staff notation purists get off their high horse.
This is not to say that stringed instrument players should not learn staff notation. By learning staff notation, you’re exposing yourself to worlds of music that may not be available in tablature and allowing yourself to communicate through written music with players of non-stringed instruments. That’s huge. So, when you’re ready, learn staff notation. Learning to play the piano at a basic level is a great way to do that. Then you can contribute to the great canon of ukulele tabs created by those who know both.