Chapter 1

In the Beginning
The Origins of Keyboard Notation

   One of the reasons I chose tablature as a research topic was because I really wanted to go back to where it all began—the very first for my instrument. The earliest known notated keyboard piece is from the Robertsbridge Codex from the early 14th Century. But even before this occurs, I would like to briefly go back to the very beginning—the origins of music notation in general. In Sounds and Signs, Cole assigns inscriptions on bones, shells, and bronze from A.D.100 China to be the earliest known music notation: “In all cultures of which we have knowledge, […] word literacy has preceded music literacy.”1 This statement is true, especially concerning keyboard tablature which consists of marks and symbols—letters and numbers—from linguistic scripts.

Accent neume notation (right) from the 11-12th centuries and Aquitanian point neume notation (left) from the 13th century, possession of Johannes Wolf2


Wolf also points out that the Greeks differentiated between vocal and instrumental notations. In the Middle Ages, other arts of notation differed from the tablature, which was a purely instrumental creation; hence, different systems were needed for different types of instruments. The word tablature comes from tabula, a table or a board (Tafel, Blatt) where music was written. Wolf observes that 4 different types of tablature came into use for different instrument groups: keyed, plucked, stringed, and wind. The letters and numbers constituted, beside the note pitches, the basic fundamental elements in music—this kind of notation first stems from the vernacular way how the music flows out of the instrument (Praxis der Spielleute3). Once the art of fostering instrument playing is established, then comes the written tradition.4

   Apel and Tappolet agree that instrumental notation had been easily accomplished by a new system different from a pre-existing “church notation,” a combination of notes (Noten), letters (Buchstaben), and numbers (Zahlen).5 It is important to note that music written before 1600 was nearly all vocal music. In terms of performance practice, vocal or choral music was performed with instrumental participation, or purely instrumental music was written in the vocal style until more idiomatic instrumental music developed later in the style of contrasting characters one after another, as in the keyboard toccatas and preludes.6 The performance of polyphonic music could only be accomplished by an ensemble until the advent of a polyphonic instrument such as the keyboard or lute, in which case polyphonic music became soloistic for the first time.7 Even though we may not think of it as a big deal, there was a moment in music history where a soloistic performance of polyphonic music was a novelty. There is no doubt the tablature notation played a role in facilitating this. The organ was considered the first instrument to service the voices. It could produce 3 or 4 voices together providing harmony, but also counterpoint, and could hold a tone long or short and tie notes. This is why the earliest keyboard pieces are an Organ-Denkmal.8

   The earliest keyboard notation appears in the early 14th century in a form of a mixed mensural-tablature notation from a few leaves of instrumental music in the English source Robertsbridge Codex. Then for a century thereafter, nothing notated for the keyboard is to be found, and the next notated keyboard music appears in the German Wilkin’s Tablature Book (1432)9 to be followed by other German sources, the most representative of this style and period being Das Buxheimer Orgelbuch (ca.1460). Here are some of the earliest sources of keyboard music from the early 16th century in different notational systems:

Arnolt Schlick (1460-1521) Tabulaturen etlicher Lobgesang und Lidlein (Mainz, 1512), early German tabalture

Andrea Antico (1480-1559) Frottole intabulate da sonare organi (Rome, 1517), a score of two 5-line staves

Marco Antonio Cavazzoni (1480-1559)10 Recerchari, motetti, canzoni (Venice, 1523), a score of two 6-line staves

Pierre Attaingnant (1494-1552) Quatorze Gaillardes neuf Pavennes (Paris, 1530), a score of two 5-line staves

Gonzalo de Baena (1480-1540) Arte novamente inuentada pera aprender a tanger (Lisbon,1540), letter tablature

These early sources are only the beginning of a large number of various notation methods for the keyboard to be employed in Spain, Germany, France, Italy, and England in the 16th century. But why are there so many different systems of notation—tablature being one of them—in the 16th century and not anymore afterwards? Both Apel and Parrish agree that notation from the early 17th century is more or less the modern notation system we have today.11 Parrish points out that notation has not changed much since the early 17th century. However, 7 centuries before that in the 9-16th centuries, music notation went through many changes, which he describes as “the thorniest stages of notation.”12 It is also the development period in which coming from purely vocal repertoire, the instrumental literature became more idiomatic. Judd observes this may have been caused by the printing revolution in the late Renaissance: “theory treatises from the late fifteenth century through the first half of the sixteenth century show their authors constantly renegotiating the relationship with print, while refining the means of notational presentation.”13

   Two things about tablature must be clarified before further discussion: the definition of tablature and sometimes the confusing usage of the word tablature even within the 16th-and-17th-century context.

As for the definition, there seem to be two schools:


1) a notation in which tones are indicated by letters or figures, or by a combination of one of these means sometimes with the symbols of mensural notation14

2) a system of showing by letters or numbers or other means the string or fret or organ key that was to be touched, rather than the sound to be produced15


The first definition by Parrish is true for all the keyboard tablature examples that will be discussed in the following chapters. Parrish expounds on the definition by also commenting it is a “touch” notation, a product of the Renaissance to notate a large amount of instrumental music that flourished in the period starting from the 15th century, “a special kind of notation that was well in advance of its time” that was also used extensively in a later period.16 The second definition is very true in the case of other instrumental tablatures. For lute and string instruments, the notation will indicate on which frets to press the string; for wind instruments it will show which holes to cover or uncover17—it does assign the physical execution and placement of the notes but not necessarily the sound that will be produced.18 However, this will not be entirely true with keyboard tablature. For example, the Spanish keyboard tablature was most often published as tablature for the keyboard, harp and vihuela. This kind of notation simply provided pitches, not necessarily playing technique idiomatic to one instrument.

The term tablature is used rather loosely and inconsistently even in the 16th century. For instance, the Italian expression tavolatura or tabolatura does not necessarily mean the tablature notation of figures or letters. The 16th-century sources outside the Spanish and German systems in England, Italy, and France already employed many-lined staff scores and partitura, a multi-staffed notation of polyphonic music for the keyboard. Even terms like “English organ tablatures,” “Italian organ tablatures,” or “French organ tablatures” are purely national, and not notational.19 The difference between the Spanish and German tablature and the other English, Italian, and French notations will be discussed in more detail in Chapter 4.

   In closing, tablature notation covers more than 2 centuries of early keyboard repertoire and stands as a true reflection of the nature and structure of music from this period. It would be preposterous to try to fit music from a later period into this notation—some distant tonalities and modulations will simply not work—and there are certainly limitations in tablature notation. However, thinking from an earlier period forward, it is crucial to understand that this notation was a novelty and an ingenious conception at the time of its invention, which means studying and understanding this notation will widen one’s perspective of performance practice from this period. My goal is not to think backwards—from the 21st century looking back at this foreign, intimidatingly unfamiliar notation—but to think forward—coming from an earlier period of vocal polyphonic music into this notation—and thereby, putting myself in the mindset of a 16th-century keyboard player.

Greek instrumental notation (top) from 1st century
Byzantine notation (left) from the 12-13th centuries, Berlin Staatsbibliothek Preußischer Kulturbesitz cod. graec. fol.49 fol.91v
Modern Turkish notation (right), possession of Messoud Djemil, İstanbul20


Johannes Wolf (1869-1947), the first author and musicologist in modern times21 to write and publish exhaustive works on music notation,22 also acknowledges that the music notation from the first few centuries C.E. might be primitive and limited because of the lack of tools and materials to notate, or because of the simplicity of the music that did not require much notation at all.23 The first written notation in Western music appears in the late 9th century.24 In the era of a unified Catholic church, folk or religious music was orally transmitted until a type of accent notation, such as neumes,25 came into use.26 Wolf points out the use of Latin and Byzantine neumes27 and Latin alphabet letters in early Greek notations,28 leading up to the mensural notation widely employed in Renaissance polyphonic music. As music evolved from monophonic (in purely linear arrangement) to polyphonic (including horizontal and vertical relationships), there was a need for a new notational system to clearly express the complexities of the new style, ars nova. Williams points out that the “church notation” was considered “far too clumsy for indicating instrumental music.”29