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What Is Lute Tablature?

Andrew Kirmayer
By
Updated May 23, 2024
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Standard lute tablature features six lines, each one representing a corresponding string and its open note on the lute instrument. Similar to guitar tablature, it begins and ends with a G-note, as opposed to the E-note for the guitar, and has a tuning of GCFADG. The highest note is on top and the lowest on the bottom, which is the structure used in tablature for the guitar. A string is accompanied by the letter “a” if it is to be played open, a “b” if a finger is supposed to be on the first fret, while a “c” indicates a finger on the second fret. Each line on the tablature represents two strings on the lute, together known as a course.

The lute typically has six courses, but can have up to 14. Courses higher than the sixth are indicated on the lute tablature with slashes, so a seventh course will be indicated by one slash, an eighth by two slashes, and each additional course will have another slash. The system for denoting lute chords is also accompanied by time signatures. Flags and circles used in lute tablature indicate timing and look like the top part of timing symbols used in standard musical notation. Timing can also be indicated using a line with a tail, which is particularly useful for writing lute tablature on a computer.

Lute tablature does not offer information on the tuning of the instrument or go into much detail regarding cadences. It is also hard to compare the notes to standard musical notation, so the development of computer programs to read and interpret lute music has been slow. Music theory specialists are often knowledgeable in computer science, so the discrepancy between the logic of lute tablature and transcribing it to computer programs has been a challenge. There is also little precision for the addition of vocal accompaniment with lute music.

The current method of lute tablature is similar to when it was first played in Europe, beginning in the 14th century. A lute is played by finger-picking, and the tuning corresponds to the notes played on a classical guitar with a capo placed on the third fret. Like guitar tablature, it is easy for beginners to learn to read and play along with lute tablature. There are also variations in tablature for the lute, ranging from that used in the Renaissance to that of Baroque times. English and French variations are also different from Spanish and German forms.

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Andrew Kirmayer
By Andrew Kirmayer
Andrew Kirmayer, a freelance writer with his own online writing business, creates engaging content across various industries and disciplines. With a degree in Creative Writing, he is skilled at writing compelling articles, blogs, press releases, website content, web copy, and more, all with the goal of making the web a more informative and engaging place for all audiences.
Discussion Comments
By titans62 — On Feb 20, 2012

@jcraig - I am with you. The differences are very intriguing. I would have to guess that the lute came along before the guitar, since during the Renaissance, lutes were a common instrument.

My friend is a music major, and he owns a lute. I play the guitar, but I was still very confused by the notation that was used with the tablature. He tried to explain it to me a little, but it is hard to break old habits.

I think using the letters to represent frets instead of numbers was the hardest to get used to. It is also a lot more difficult than you might expect to fingerpick and be able to play both strings at the same time. I guess I now know they're called courses.

By jcraig — On Feb 19, 2012

This was really helpful. I am taking a world music class, and our teacher brought in a lute and played it for us today. He was talking about the tablature and comparing it to the guitar, but I didn't really understand what he was talking about until now.

It is really interesting how two instruments that are so similar can have so many differences in terms of the way the tablature is written.

Does anyone know anything about the history of the lute and why the tablature might have evolved differently than that of the guitar?

Andrew Kirmayer
Andrew Kirmayer
Andrew Kirmayer, a freelance writer with his own online writing business, creates engaging content across various...
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