MannofieldMusic - Guitar Lessons in Surbiton, Kingston upon Thames, Greater London


Preface - The ability to play the guitar is neither solely dependent on being able to read tab nor music notation, in much the same way as the ability to speak is not solely dependent on the ability to read text. We learn quite a few words before we are able to read. However, when the learning to read process begins, our learning of new words increases dramatically and gradually we begin to absorb vast amounts of information.

It is human nature to desire to communicate with others and over many centuries spoken languages have evolved to enable information to pass from person to person and also to verbally record history over time.

Nowadays, communication by written languages and the ability to read text  are considered normal if not essential things for most people, we take it for granted. Historically, this is a fairly recent development. Even a little more than a hundred years ago the ability to read and write was mostly a skill for the privileged (educated) few. Languages evolve and our ability to read and write enhances this process as our knowledge increases. We are able to develop our understanding of many subjects; music is one of those subjects, and music is also a language.

Tablature or Tab is an easy short-cut to playing and novices may be impressed with their apparent rapid progress. Tablature is very useful for indicating where to execute sounds or in copying something for which the sound is already known.

Tablature has a long history of use going back hundreds of years. However, it is not without certain drawbacks because the note durations and rhythms, as well as the names of the actual notes (and strings) may remain completely unknown, and the fingering may be ambiguous. As a written language it communicates how to perform certain actions to replicate sounds and is very simple to decode and so it is a very popular approach used by many guitar players. However, tab is not a portable system and so a saxophonist or a flautist would not be able to make sense of it or be able to play the music.

Tablature is very easy to understand but the flip side of this means that it unfortunately lacks semantic content. Therefore, the use of tab is great as a fast shortcut to copy something but for educational purposes i.e. for conveying an understanding of underlying musical principles, it's very limited. With regard to sounds created or replicated, the use of tab may be said to be descriptive but not explanatory.

Music notation (formalised by around the 13th century but originating much further back in time) requires more effort to learn (and teach) but yields greater rewards because it has intrinsic value as a foundation for acquiring and building real musical knowledge. For example, knowing the names of the notes you are playing, understanding note durations and rhythms, keys or tonalities used in music, knowing the notes contained in chords, how to create and name 'new' chord shapes, understanding harmony and tonality shifts. These skills are also useful if you are writing your own compositions, and for those with creative talent, knowledge of tonalities can provide a framework or structure to use when improvising (in any style). Furthermore, the ability to read music notation opens up a vast repertoire of music for the guitar spanning centuries.

The ability to read notation also means a guitarist can pick up a score written for flute or violin or other instruments and play it on the guitar or vice versa (depending on compass). Therefore, it is a portable skill.

The ability to understand and manipulate music notation provides a gateway to information and hence the acquisition of knowledge.

If you can read the words on this page then you can read books. The more books you read, then the more knowledge you should acquire.

Knowledge = Fun because it widens your musical horizons and allows you to explore previously unknown areas of the world of music.

Music knowledge (theory) is useful in achieving practical results whether reading from a score or having a jam.

If you want to be a mechanic then you need to understand the theory of how an engine works. If you want to be an electronics engineer then you need to understand the theory of electronics. Doctors need to understand the theory of medicine to be able to treat patients. Every subject has its own theory. If you look up the word theory in a dictionary you will find it can have up to six very different meanings.

Theory here is taken to mean "a system of rules, procedures, and assumptions used to produce a result." (Collins English Dictionary).

Knowledge of music theory is essential to enable written arrangements for other (transposing) instruments, woodwind, brass, strings, keyboard etc.

Knowledge (however it is acquired) assists in our understanding of permutations of notes (e.g. chord voicings, harmonising melodies etc) so that we can play the same thing on the guitar in completely different ways. This in turn helps us to experiment with the voicing of chords (and partial chords i.e. intervals) or the tonal quality (timbre) of notes or in simply ease of playing on the fingerboard, which is important because every individual has different size of hands and finger-span. What might be easy for one person might be difficult for another.

Knowledge allows different approaches to problem solving.

Musicians who are dedicated to learning their craft spend time and effort studying music notation because it is a big gateway to knowledge. An inability to read means that particular gateway is closed.

The joy of the art of music for musicians lies in the fact that something new is learned every time we listen to music, perform music or contemplate why something sounds the way it does. Hence,



 When you consider the vast array of musical sounds that could be written down, it should become apparent that the study of music notation is something that requires effort, motivation, and dedication.

Learning to read Notation is not as difficult as you may think...

There is a reading aid for helping us find notes on the guitar fingerboard when we read music notation (like tab' but better). This reading aid is very precise because the finger(s) and hand position is stated, not simply the fret number. Also, we can superimpose this reading aid on top of the actual music notation, which itself indicates the pitch, note-names, and rhythm of the notes to be played. This aid makes reading notation much easier, which in turn helps in the acquisition of knowledge. I usually refer to this widely used system as the POSITIONAL FINGERING SYSTEM.

Not only does the positional fingering system help with reading notation, it also helps in learning the guitar fingerboard as well. It is a very simple system and easy to learn for beginners of all ages.


 Personally, I have not found tablature used in the professional world of music (e.g. theatre or orchestral/jazz ensembles) nor at music college.  However, it has to be said that tab' is very widely used, mainly by beginners who do not have the privilege of being able to receive lessons from a qualified teacher. There is apparently a lot of tab' material available on the Internet, and anything that gets novices interested in playing the guitar (for musical reasons) is a good thing. It also has the advantage of not requiring a teacher, and so the students could learn to make sounds themselves - but they should be aware of the limitations.


 From a personal teaching perspective, I have never found the need to use tab' because even young children are capable of learning notation and fingering, as shown by many young students on the guitar as well as on all the other musical instruments, and of course, students are also encouraged to play 'by ear'. There is little that I could actually teach on the subject of tablature itself as it is purely a 'play by numbers' system. All I could teach would be to say...

 "tablature is a pictorial representation of the strings upon which are numbers that indicate the frets where the strings are depressed in order to make the required sounds and requires no musical knowledge."


Whilst we all want to overcome difficulties when learning anything, we should always endeavour to advance in our knowledge, and try as much as possible to avoid the process of dumbing down, otherwise (especially for Guitar players) musicianship may not be fully attained.

Of course, the art of music is not just about being able to read and write the dots. However, music is a language of human emotion, and just as happens in other (spoken) languages, the ability to read and write (musical literacy) helps us to understand what we are doing when we use this language.


This is particularly important in the language of music since it is a Universal language, albeit with regional 'variations'.


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Copyright (c) 2009 - 2023 by Dr Bill Mann, Surbiton, Kingston, London