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What Is Lute Tablature?

Lute tablature is a form of musical notation, uniquely designed for lute players to easily interpret and perform pieces. It uses letters or symbols on lines representing the lute's strings, guiding musicians on where to place their fingers. This historical system unlocks a world of Renaissance and Baroque music. Curious about reading tablature and exploring its secrets? Let's delve deeper together.
Andrew Kirmayer
Andrew Kirmayer

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.

Using tablature to read and write songs for the guitar or lute is considered easier than reading and writing traditional music notes.
Using tablature to read and write songs for the guitar or lute is considered easier than reading and writing traditional music notes.

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.

Lutes are stringed instruments that are similar to modern acoustic guitars.
Lutes are stringed instruments that are similar to modern acoustic guitars.

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.

Frequently Asked Questions

What is lute tablature and how does it differ from modern musical notation?

Lute tablature is a form of musical notation specifically designed for the lute, a popular Renaissance string instrument. Unlike modern staff notation, which indicates pitch and rhythm on a five-line staff, lute tablature uses a system of lines representing the strings of the lute and letters or numbers to indicate the frets. This makes it more akin to a diagram of the lute's fretboard, providing a visual representation of where the fingers should be placed.

Can lute tablature be used for other instruments?

While lute tablature was created for the lute, its principles have been adapted for other fretted string instruments, such as the guitar. However, because it is tailored to the specific tuning and number of strings of the lute, direct translation to other instruments may require adjustments. Musicians often transcribe lute tablature into modern notation or adapt it to suit the particular instrument they are playing.

Is it difficult to learn to read lute tablature?

Learning to read lute tablature can be challenging for those accustomed to modern musical notation, but it is quite logical once the basics are understood. It requires a different approach, focusing on the physical placement of fingers rather than the abstract representation of pitch and rhythm. With practice and familiarity with the lute's tuning and fretboard, reading tablature can become second nature for lutenists.

Where can I find historical pieces written in lute tablature?

Historical lute music written in tablature can be found in various manuscripts and printed collections from the Renaissance and Baroque periods. Many of these sources have been digitized and are available through online music libraries and specialized databases. For example, the International Music Score Library Project (IMSLP) offers access to a range of historical scores, including lute tablatures, which can be viewed and downloaded for free.

How has lute tablature influenced modern guitar tablature?

Modern guitar tablature is directly descended from lute tablature, sharing the concept of using lines to represent strings and numbers to indicate frets. While the specifics of the notation have evolved, the fundamental idea remains the same: providing a visual guide to finger placement on the instrument. This lineage highlights the enduring utility of tablature as a tool for communicating musical ideas across centuries.

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Discussion Comments

titans62

@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.

jcraig

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?

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    • Using tablature to read and write songs for the guitar or lute is considered easier than reading and writing traditional music notes.
      By: Brian Jackson
      Using tablature to read and write songs for the guitar or lute is considered easier than reading and writing traditional music notes.
    • Lutes are stringed instruments that are similar to modern acoustic guitars.
      Lutes are stringed instruments that are similar to modern acoustic guitars.