The one keyboard piece in Sebastian Virdung’s Musica getuscht und ausgezogen (Basel, 1511)


While Virdung’s tablature is quite legible and rhythmically clear, Schlick’s printed tablature uses “white notation” without bar lines:

A page from Arnolt Schlick’s Tabulaturen etlicher Lobgesang und Lidlein uff die Orgeln und Lauten (Mainz, 1512) 1


The following is a page from what Apel identifies as Kotter’s tablature of 1513 (Basle, Universitätsbibliothek, F IX 22). It is in a similar arrangement as Das Buxheimer Orgelbuch but with notes in a rounder shape without stems, because a stem indicates the time value for all subsequent notes, as seen below:2

Estampie, Robertsbridge Codex (left) from early 14th century3 and mensural notation of ars nova Italy (right) from the 14th century4


The upper voice of this 2-voice Estampie is notated on a single staff with Italian mensural notation and the lower voice in letters but without any time duration, in which case the time value has to be judged by relation to the upper part. There is an occasional insertion of a third voice to reinforce the harmony at cadence points.5 It is rather an interesting mix of Italian and German notation styles found in an English source (with English words like return written at the end).6 Both Apel and Parrish consider this specimen to be the only extant manuscript of its kind as far as keyboard notation is concerned7—it is the oldest known documentation and the start of music for the keyboard8 to be followed by a list of sources in tablature notation, all of German origin:9

Tablature of Ludolf Wilkin, 1432 (Berlin, Staatsbibilothek, theol. lat. quart. 290)

Tablature of Adam Ileborgh, 1448 (Philadelphia, Curtis Institute of Music)

Tablature of Wolfgang de Novo Domo (Neuhaus), ca.1450 (Hamburg, Stadt- und Universitätsbibliothek, ND VI No. 3225)

Fragments of a tablature, ca. 1450 (Breslau, Dominikanerkloster)

Fundamentum organisandi magistri Conradi Paumanni, 1452 (Wernigerode, Library of Fürst Stolbergk, MS Zb 14)

Tablature, anonymous, ca. 1450 (Erlangen, Universitätsbibliothek, 729)



Below is my hand-drawn order of notes on a keyboard (with the possibility of a short octave, s.o.) from the letter notes (left hand) of № 181. Min hertz in hohen fröuden:



   Perhaps the most representative and also most well-known source of the Early German Tablature is Das Buxheimer Orgelbuch (München, Staatsbibliothek, Mus. Ms. 3725) attributed to the Reichskartause Buxheim (The Buxheim Charterhouse, a monastery in Bavaria, Germany), comprising 256 mostly anonymous, 2- or 3-voiced compositions and arrangements for the keyboard. The upper voice is notated in what Apel calls “black notation,” mensural notation used before 1450, on a 7-line staff:12


A page from Leonhard Klebersche Tabulaturbuch, (Berlin, Staatsbibliothek, Mus.Ms. Z 26, 1520-1524)14

The letter indication of pitches of the Bernhard Schmid II Tabulaturbuch is visualized on the keyboard in the following hand-drawing:

Following is a chaconne by Ennemond “Vieux” Gaultier (1575-1651), a cousin of Denis and another master of the 17th-century French lute school, from an English source called the Robarts Lute Book (ca.1654-1668), with plenty of r-looking c’s (d’Anglebert’s harpsichord arrangement of this piece, preserved in the 89ter manuscript, was performed at Notatie der Toetsenkunst 1460-1750):

Neumes with Boethian letters from the 11th century, Montpeliier, Ecole de médicine H 196.15


   The German system of keyboard tablature is very significant in that the earliest notated source of keyboard music (Robertsbridge Codex) appears in the form of an early German keyboard tablature. Parrish points out that nearly all German keyboard music from the 15th-16th centuries has been notated in tablature.16 It still stayed in practice into the 18th century, including the music of Buxtehude and some writings of J.S. Bach and his hand-scribbled notes or musical memos on the margins of his scores. Interestingly enough, a copy of the Ammerbach Tabulaturbuch, owned by J.S. Bach with his hand-written notes is preserved at the King’s Library at the British Museum (Ammerbach was a predecessor of Bach at the Leipziger St. Thomas).17 Willi Apel, author of the first exhaustive source in modern times on the notation of Western music in English and a musicologist following the footsteps of Johannes Wolf in the study of notation, divides the German tablature literature to 2 types: the Early German Tablature, a system combining a form of staff or mensural notation with the letters; and the New German Tablature, a system notating polyphonic music only with letters.18 In the Early German Tablature, the highest voice of usually a 2- or 3-part texture is notated on a staff with lower voice(s) in letters underneath. Perhaps quite surprising to the modern mind, the later New German Tablature gets rid of the staff entirely and goes into a pure letter system. This kind of tablature remains prevalent in German keyboard music into the 17th century, to be gradually replaced by the partitura system and a 2-staff keyboard score, to remain until our present day.


The Early German Tablature

   The following keyboard piece that appears in the Robertsbridge Codex is found on 1 of the 4 pages (2 leaves) containing instrumental music:



The tablature from 1448 (image above) of Frater Adam Ileborgh, rector of Stendal, is a 12-page manuscript notated in the old German style of staff notation and letters. It includes pedal indications, and Wolf attributes the invention of the pedal in the beginning of the 14th century to a Brabant organ builder Louis van Valbeke (?-1318).20 The tablature book of Conrad Paumann of Nürnberg (1410-1473) (image below) Fundamentum organisandi, preserved in the Wernigerode manuscripts, is also a mix of staff and middle and lower voices in letters:21

The 3rd and 4th staves contain notes that have another stem and a flag as indicated as the following:

The first is some kind of an ornament, most likely the mordent, according to a later source, Fundamentum sive ratio vera, ca. 1520 of Johann Buchner, to have the main note played only once and held while the auxiliary note to be repeated quickly like a trill on the violin; the second ornament with an extra line is an ornament of similar kind with chromatic alteration.22 Although most of the pieces in the Orgelbuch are anonymous, Apel deduces that in the case of № 110 Boumgartner, the composer’s name is Boumgartner.23

   Sebastian Virdung’s Musica getuscht und ausgezogen (Basel, 1511) and Arnolt Schlick’s Tabulaturen etlicher Lobgesang und Lidlein uff die Orgeln und Lauten (Mainz, 1512) are the earliest known printed keyboard music sources. Williams writes that Virdung (1465-?) was a Bavarian priest and an organist who lived in Basel in the 1st decades of the 16th century. His Musica getuscht is in quaint Bavarian dialect and was a prequel to a larger work that had not been written yet.24 Musica getuscht is a theoretical treatise on instruments (such as the keyboard, lute, and flute), their uses, and examples of their tablatures. He is known to have studied in Heidelberg, was one of the Colorists (Koloristen),25 and sang in the chapel court in Württember, Stuttgart. His Musica getuscht and Martin Agricola’s Musica instrumentalis deudsch. (Wittenburg, 1529) are the oldest known printed sources on music theory, counterpoint, composition with illustrations of instruments, history and classification of instrument families and their notation. Williams accounts that Virdung met the great Conrad Paumann (1410-1473), a celebrated blind organist of his day buried in Munich, but expresses mockery at the idea of a blind man teaching tablature, as does Agricola.26 Agricola (1486-1556), born in Świebodzin, Poland died in Magdeburg, Germany, lived in Magdeburg from 1524 until his death and was a teacher and a cantor at the Protestant school. He was friends with Georg Rhau of Wittenberg, who published Agricola’s work. Musica instrumentalis deudsch was published twice in 1528 and 1548 in Wittenburg. It is a treatise on organology and rudiments of music. Agricola is also known to have been the first known person to harmonize Martin Luther’s Ein feste Berg in 4 parts.27

The note values gain an additional flag from the usual mensural notation as summarized by Apel:28

In the above example of № 181 Min hertz in hohen fröuden, rhythm indication is very clear for both hands as the dots above the letters indicate each beat of the lower voice, and the vertical lines (l), subdivision of the beat. Unlike the earlier sources, rhythm indication for the lower voice(s) in letters is clearly given, sometimes containing rests (ㅜ) and even pedal signs (pe or p) as indicated below (circled in red) in № 237 Wunschlichen schön:

A page from Fridolin Sicher’s tablature, ca.1525 (Library of the Monastery St. Gall, 530)29

The New German Tablature

   From the early 15th century to the mid-16th century, the Early German Tablature system in which letters are employed except the highest voice was the prevalent form to be followed by the New German Tablature—in all letters. Around 1570 (the publication of Ammerbach’s Tabulaturbuch) marks the advent of the Colorists such as Sebastian Virdung, Arnolt Schlick, Elias Nikolaus Ammerbach, Bernhard Schmid the Elder and the Younger, and Conrad Paumann, many of whose compositions and publications were in the New German Tablature system. The general chronology seems to delineate the division between the Early and New styles, or perhaps as the 2- or 3-voice texture aptly fits into a staff-letter combo, does a 4- or more voice texture work better in a homogenous system of letters only.

   The title page and preface of Orgel oder Instrument Tabulaturbuch (Leipzig, 1571; Nürnberg, 1583) of Elias Nikolaus Ammerbach (c.1530-1597) shows an approach quite contrary to today‘s general perception and reluctance towards tablature notation. It states, “Organ or Instrument [harpsichord] Tablature Book, containing necessary, short, and easy to understand instructions and explanations of the tablature which are therefore easy to learn.”30 It demonstrates that tablature playing is not some kind of an unattainable myth but rather an "easy" system.

The Early German Tablature system continues into the 16th century; 2 manuscripts dated ca. 1525 are shown below:

Title page and Num.55. Anchor che col’ partire. à 4. from Bernhard Schmid II Tabulaturbuch (Straßburg, 1607)


   Legibly intabulated and beautifully preserved, the Tabulaturbuch31 of Bernhard Schmid II32 from 1607 is a collection of preludes, toccatas, motets and canzonettas, madrigals, and fugues (in 4, 5, 6 voices) and dances (passamezzos and gagliards) by known composers that show further intabulated repertoire possibilities for the keyboard. This collection showcases more counterpoint and diminutions than the Ammerbach Tabulaturbuch and certainly shows the 16th-and-17th-century keyboard idiom notated in tablature. The rhythmic precision and visualization of polyphony are achieved as follows: activity in each contrapuntal voice is clearly visible at a quick glance; the letters are aligned between the voices whereas the rhythm indication (seemingly printed with pre-set, pre-made print blocks, such as the shape ㅠ) is placed in the middle of the letters:

   The New German Tablature system was the predominant notation system for the German keyboard literature until the keyboard partitura system in Scheidt’s Tablatura Nova (1624) and the now standard staff score in Steigleder’s Ricercar Tabulaturen (1624) emerged, but it was still widely in use after 1624 especially in northern Germany.33

Chapter 2

The German Tablature

   The German letter system is no novel marvel of the 16th century. As Cole points out “linguistic literacy precedes music literacy,” it is only logical that music notation is conceived from linguistic symbols. Cole puts the parallel between linguistic and musical notations and defines the alphabetical system as “that far-fetched process in which we chop up meaningful sounds into the smallest distinguishable units, […] which are represented by letters. The earliest known musical notations are constructed on the alphabetic principle of one sound (or pitch)—one symbol.”34 Cole divides all music notation into 4 types:

1) alphabetic notation

2) directional signs

3) group signs (such as showing a sequence)

4) tablatureaction notations which lead the player’s fingers to the required place on his instrument.”35

According to Cole’s system, the German tablature is a mix of alphabetic notation and tablature that allows efficient and practical communication of idiomatic polyphonic keyboard music. Apel also notes that letters were already employed in earlier Greek notation and in use in music notation from the 9th century. He defines German tablature as the use of letters to indicate pitches on the keyboard, a simple definition, but thoroughly encompassing what is German tablature. This extends to include English, Slavic, and Dutch tablature sources at large. The German tablature consists of letters A-G, with the B-natural as H and B-flat as B.36 The usage of H in German-speaking classical music terminology to this day goes all the way back to tablature notation from the 14th-15th centuries.

Above is a particular comment from Wolf that this is a “new moment” of having more detailed information such as pedal marks and rests clearly indicated in this Early German Tablature style.37 Also interesting to note is the indication of ornamentation in № 110 Boumgartner:

It is important to note that the letter c looks much like the modern letter r—which is an influence from 17th-century French lute tablature—but this was very confusing for many of my experiment participants (c-sharp would look like re, thereby, becoming easily perceived as “re” or d). In the heyday of lute technique advancements around 1620-1650 in France, tuning and notation for the lute was much experimented. Prominent lute composer Denis Gaultier (ca.1600-1672) introduced nouveau ton around 1640, which defined the tuning of the lute and stayed in practice until the end of the 18th century.38 The following graphological summary from Gaultier’s La Rhétorique des dieux, found in the Hamilton Codex manuscript from the Berlin Staatsbibliothek, clearly shows the same “r or c seen in the Tabulaturbuch:39

Title page of Ammerbach’s Orgel oder Instrument Tabulaturbuch (Nürnberg, 1578, 2nd print)


It starts out with a meticulous explanation and even a visual aid of outlining the simple spellings in the shape and position of the keys, including the short octave as a “short guide and instruction for the beginner in the art of organ playing”:40

It is interesting to note that this actually comes from a misreading:

Since the mediaeval scale included the tone B-flat in addition to the B-natural, separate indication of these degrees was necessary. They were both designated by the letter b, this being written in two shapes, round: b (b molle) for the B-flat, and square: b (b quadratum) for the B-natural. In later usage, the square b assumed the following shape: h, and was, especially in Germany, falsely identified with the letter h, the round form being called simply: b. This nomenclature and manner of writing, i.e., h for B-natural and b for B-flat, is found in all German tablatures and persists to the present day in [German-speaking cultures].41

A variant of indicating 2 octaves with letters A-P (Boethian notation) was also used for some time but not as extensively as the repeated A-G system, which is the chief practical significance of the 15th-and-16th-century German tablature. Although in the Middle Ages letter notation was mainly for theoretical and pedagogical purposes,42 in the German tablature it has become a performance notation, and studying and playing from it is still valuable with all its theoretical and pedagogical merits preserved.

The upper keys are marked with a sharp sign that appears to be an additional loop attached to the letter:43