The answers to the survey questions have been compiled via this portal and produced the following data:
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.
The 4-voice Farbodones by Cabezón marks the end of the Spanish module. All harpsichordists and advanced keyboard (piano or organ) players were able to complete this module within an hour. Depending on the level and progress of each participant, some exercises were used in excess, some skipped.
The German Module
The German Module was always administered as a follow-up session to the Spanish Module because I found it to be more difficult than the Spanish number system. Also whereas Obras starts out with a simple 2-voice counterpoint, the Bernhard Schmid II Tabulaturbuch starts out with 4-voice toccatinas by Andrea Gabrieli, so in order to play the first piece, one will need more exercises in 4-part harmony and reading diminutions. This module follows the same pedagogical logic as the Spanish module, starting with an overview of the keyboard and note names and slowly progressing to some keyboard idioms, such as scales and chords.
The responses to the sessions were extremely positive, more so than I expected. At one point I had to start giving a reminder, specifically asking the participants not to be “nice” but to be honest. Everyone was very interested and excited about learning a new music notation (for a few of them, this was their very first instrumental experience) and was responsive, attentive, and very cooperative. An overview of their progress in the sessions according to their keyboard proficiency could be viewed here. Following are the answers to the survey questions on a scale of 1 to 7, filled in after the sessions:
1 “boring not relevant”—7 “fun, interesting” or
1 “no, impossible”—4 “maybe”—7 “yes, definitely”
“Fabordó del primer tono llano” from Obras de Musica
Depending on the level and progress of the participants, these pieces could be preceded by these exercises:
Almost all intermediate and advanced keyboard players could play the 4-part Num. 2 Primus Tonus transpositus per quartam superiorem with no problem within the hour. Some even managed to sight-read through another 4-voice piece with ease:
For participants with no or rudimentary keyboard skills, I presented the first tablature to be just a few notes in the right hand,
It was amazing that within an hour most non-musicians, who lack musical or notational knowledge or motor skills to play the keyboard, were able to arrive at this level.
For participants with more advanced keyboard skills, I simply proceeded to other pieces in 2 and 4 voices in tablature:
Num. 3. Secondus Tonus. from the Bernhard Schmid II Tabulaturbuch (Straßburg, 1607)
These two modules were administered from June 2019 to January 2020 to a very diverse group of men and women originating from 18 different countries over 4 continents, ranging in ages 12-70, in various levels of musical experience and keyboard proficiency. A detailed list of participants may be viewed here.
The few negative reactions I had received in the beginning stages of my research have been completely outweighed by the huge positive reaction and success of this experiment. The participants were not all early music performers, some not even musicians at all, but they all walked away having gained an ability to read and execute tablature on the keyboard to some degree. With the results of this experiment, I am confident that it is possible to learn music from tablature, and therefore, possible to play and perform from it as well—myth debunked!
Overview of all key numbers according to Obras
Then the participant will train to play a few 5-note scales and longer scales, intervals, a short melody by Cabezón, and chords for about 15-20 minutes.
These exercises were followed by cutouts of the 4-part Num. 2 Primus Tonus transpositus per quartam superiorem. by Andrea Gabrieli from the Bernhard Schmid II Tabulaturbuch in the following segments:
a fragment of the soprano opening
soprano and alto with the right hand
tenor and bass with the left
all 4 voices in both hands
soprano voice entire piece with diminutions
the lower 3 voices with the left hand
all 4 voices both hands, entire piece
I conducted the 2 one-hour sessions with each of the 32 participants. Over this 8-month experimental period, I had spent more than 140 hours in total for planning, booking, recruiting, organizing and communicating, administering the modules one-on-one in person, and collecting and analyzing data from all sessions. Most sessions were recorded, which resulted in about 60 hours of audio and video footage in total. The participant group mainly consisted of colleagues and friends from the conservatory and the community but also friends of friends, old classmates, distant acquaintances, a family member, and even strangers. All participants filled out the following survey form before and after the sessions:
longer scale exercises
Following is a hand-written melody from “Ave Maris Stella” by Cabezón to reduce the “shock factor” followed by the original cutout from Obras: