Debunking the Myth: A Tablature Experiment
After my first personal encounter with 16th-century keyboard tablature and my fascination of how different it was from other historical and modern notational systems, I deeply reflected on the 3D responses (Disbelief, Dismay, Dismissal, mentioned in the Introduction) I had been receiving from some early music colleagues who did not believe in tablature as a notation for study and performance. As I was finding out more from 16th-century sources, such as the prefaces of Ammerbach and Corrêa de Araujo, about how this notation was praised for its innovation and pedagogical purposes, I was so shocked that this is actually not the impression we get in the 21st century. If anything, at the first sight of this obscure, unfamiliar notation, we assume the very opposite—that it would be difficult and irrelevant. Receiving such “allergic” reactions from colleagues triggered me to devise a plan to debunk this attitude. So I took a very historical approach and created a pedagogical, beginner-friendly, step-by-step quick guide to playing from tablature.
I have created 2 one-hour modules to train in Spanish keyboard tablature according to Antonio de Cabezón’s Obras de Música para tecla, arpa y vihuela (Madrid, 1578) and in German keyboard tablature according to Bernhard Schmid II Tabulaturbuch (Straßburg, 1607). Each module has 2 components: hand written exercises to get used to the notation and to train reading melodic fragments, intervals, and chords, and cutouts from actual excerpts from these above mentioned treatises. The reason that I chose only one source for each module is to keep it simple and consistent for the participants. Even within one national system the nomenclature and the symbols differed slightly from source to source in its own system that cannot be applied universally.1
Click to view the entire exercises and excerpts for the Spanish module and exercises and excerpts for the German module.
All sessions were administered on a harpsichord or an organ positive and documented mostly in video or audio format (see Appendix A for a few samples).
The Spanish Module
Each module starts out with an overview of the keyboard, so the participant can get a new perspective of all the keys and their names. For a few non-musician participants there was an additional preliminary step before this slide, briefly addressing the upper and lower keys on the instrument and the up (to the right) and down (to the left) of the pitch arrangement on the keyboard.