Martin Agricola, Musica instrumentalis deudsch (Wittenburg, 1529)
Die art der Composition vs. Die art der Orgelischen tab.
staff notation vs. organ tab

   Music-making is, no doubt, an intricate, complex process, and even as no expert of medicine or science, I can definitely see that it is a neurologically and physiologically complicated phenomenon. Music perception and cognition is indeed a sophisticated process that provides various paths of research for psychologists and musicians.2 As performers, we notice our senses are heightened and easily affected by many different factors in the moment of performance. So as a performer, I fully understand that when it comes to a high-stress, focus-needed situation like a live performance, one may prefer familiarity and comfort over historical authenticities. Cole believes, “In notation, certain procedures survive simply because they feel comfortable and right to us, and because to change them would cause us emotional disturbance without bringing any corresponding advantage.” He adds that “even the dropping the rests from empty bars (or the dropping of bars themselves) as practiced in modern scores can inflict a slight shock on the conventional reader.” Georg Muffat (1653-1704) warns performers against horror fusae, the alarm caused at the sight of double fusae (semiquavers).3 We tend to adhere to “the practice of keeping what looks right” as the norm.4 Cole observes this is why pieces for children in method books are notated in bigger note values because the sight of faster note values will easily cause “nervous rigor.”5 Visual association of what one sees on the page is a big factor in music making. With that said, an obscure, unfamiliar notation like tablature might come across as "too daunting" at first.

   The start of this research was initiated to investigate and debunk such attitudes and myths. However, in this chapter, I would like to analyze the possible causes for why a performer may reject tablature reading in performance. In the course of the experiment and sharing this topic with others, I have encountered many memorable reactions. Some said tablature looked like “an alien script”; some said the German tablature looked like “ancient Chinese.” Some expressed shock exclaiming “how can you play from this!” I have asked my current and former harpsichord teachers, if they knew of any performer, colleague, or their former teacher who could have played from tablature, and it turns out there has been a great lack and neglect of tablature playing in the HIP practice in general. After some searching and asking around and from my first-hand experience going to concerts, my observation is that even veteran performers and specialists in keyboard repertoire originally notated in tablature do not seem to play from the original notation. Indeed the challenge for the 21st-century keyboard player so used to the 2-staff notation is reading polyphony in separate lines or parts (although as discussed in Chapter 4 the tablature system is much easier and more modern-player-friendly than the partitura system). However, I would like to point out that tablature reading was also an art in its own right requiring skills even from the 16th-century keyboard player. Corrêa de Araujo asserts that it is not just visual understanding of notation that enables one to play well but rather having an understanding of musical idioms upon a good underlying keyboard technique, as he explains the technical nature of tablature in “Chapter 10 of the Observation Concerning Perfect Playing of Tablature”6 in Facultad organica (Alcalá,1626):

Notatie der Toetsentkunst 1460-1750
May 22, 2019
photograpy by Natthapong Sirisit


   Through this experience, I learned that obscurity and unfamiliarity does not mean impossibility. If one would just take a bit of risk to expand curiosity and set aside any pre-conceived notions of ease or practicality, a new experience of authentic practice, not only in knowledge but also in experience, will add dimensions to one’s understanding of music. If non-musicians and non-HIP performers can display such enthusiasm and acceptance in acquiring some tablature proficiency in 2 short sessions, how much more exciting and valuable it is for my colleagues and me! So To Tab or Not to Tab, That Is the Question!—whether it ends up being a reference, study, or performance notation, by sharing my experience, I would like to express that it behooves us to go check out this unique, one-of-a-kind art of notating keyboard music.

Also to the questions including tablature in HIP practice and in conservatories, harpsichordists gave the most negative reaction as seen in the following comparison of the average reaction from both groups:

   Some harpsichordist colleagues expressed that while it is fun and interesting, they do not find it so practical in a performance situation, due to not having enough time to practice in general and having to perform other musical tasks, such as continuo playing and practicing other solo repertoire. Also a few commented that tablature does not contain the most representative, idiomatic of harpsichord repertoire, and therefore, does not warrant extra study at length. I do acknowledge their points and partially agree and sympathize with their concerns for practicality. I am the first person to admit that this is not easy. When I was preparing for the performance of “Notatie der Toetsenkunst 1460-1750,” it was an intimidating and nerve-racking task. Even one month before my recital, I had some doubts and fear, “what if I walk on stage and my mind goes blank?” “what if I make a mistake and cannot get back into the music?” My main subject teacher Fabio Bonizzoni witnessed this doubt first-hand but supported and assured me on this cause. But whether failure or success, I thought it would be a worthwhile experience, prepared for it, and just did it. It was a success!

There are many people who, concerning the symbols of the tablature, know those which are vertically aligned sound simultaneously, that the first [figures] after each line of division [bar-line], give the accented part of the measure and the ones in the middle the lighter part, that the commas signify lengthening of the preceding note, and the sharps and flats [signify] black keys, diatonically. If they believe that with all this they already know how to play perfectly from tablature they are mistaken, because what they have said is of little importance and very easy; I can prove it, because this is only the first [step] which is taught to the pupils, and it is not the first [step] that perfects the work, but the last, […]
I observe that he who can already play reasonably well could very easily begin to play tablature, and as he already has technical skill, he will become skillful in playing from tablature, beginning with the easiest works of this book, and leaving the difficult ones until he is more competent.7

So considering how tablature could have come across just as “challenging” to the 16th-century beginner as to the 21st-century person, it is fair to say that it is not all too easy but rather requires effort and understanding to gain fluency—just as in any performance art. The concept of music-learning and music-making changed drastically over the last 5 centuries. In Reading Renaissance Music Theory: Hearing with the Eyes, Dr. Cristle Collins Judd expresses that we have a completely different approach to auralizing music now:

In conferences, lectures, and day-today conversations about music, we routinely employ sounding music examples as an integral part of our discourse about music. Such sounds may include anything from the humming of a phrase or line, to a partial rendition at the keyboard, to live or recorded performances of entire works. Traditionally, when such oral/aural events are transformed for the medium of print, sounding words and sounding music are replaced by written text and notated examples. In the late 1990s the advent of hypermedia—CD-ROMs and the promulgation of electronic journals—holds the promise, if not yet the actuality, of transforming the way we present our published discourse about music. Readily apparent—perhaps facile—parallels between the so-called “print revolution” and the “cyber revolution” abound. […]
The oxymoron “aural image” highlights the special nature of musical exemplarity and notational representation. The notated music example is doubly distant from the aural phenomenon that it ultimately represents: the notation stands for sound, but, excised and frames as an example, points both back to a presumed whole that it represents (synecdoche) and also forward from the new discourse of which it becomes part.8

In short, the modern process of music perception is drastically different from how the 16th-century person would have perceived and discussed music. With that said, tablature reading as one of the processes for the HIP keyboardist to learn and recreate music—to perceive it as it was originally conceived and notated—is indeed a single step nearer to authentic practice. Cole points out, “The first purpose of a notation is to put over the message clearly and concisely. Yet there are forms of address appropriate to different communication situations which often decide the form the communication takes.”9 Understanding the “situation” that decides the form of communication is key in deciphering style and reinterpreting authenticity. For me personally, the knowledge of music and experience on the harpsichord preceded my encounter of tablature. But investigating more about the “situation” that brought about the notation enriched my understanding of the music and inspired me to take it into practice.

   Over the course of the experiment, I have noticed a very interesting trend, with 9 out of 32 participants being harpsichordists. Their response to the last few questions on the survey form was quite striking and contrasting to the rest of the group. I have received the biggest enthusiasm from other instrumentalists and non-professional musicians. Harpsichordists were equally enthusiastic at first but displayed the most doubt when it came to the question of tablature as a potential performance notation. I had formulated 4 questions for each module, to which the average response of the harpsichordists was equally or more positive—except the last question:

Chapter 8

To Tab or Not to Tab, That is the Question!
The Psychology of Notation