Chapter 10

Tablature Returns: Efforts after the 17th Century to Bring Back Tablature

Johann Sebastian Bach
No Space? No Problem!

   At the turn of the 17th century, the 2-staff notation became more of the standard form of keyboard notation. After tablature went out of fashion, Johann Sebastian Bach (1685-1750), who was known to have owned a copy of the Ammerbach Tabulaturbuch and draws musical training from the influences of Dietrich Buxtehude (1637-1707) and Georg Böhm (1661-1733), still used the tablature system practically in his autograph scores to scribble musical notes on the margin (i.e. the fugal theme or fragments from another page) or to notate the last few measures when he runs out of staff lines at the end of the page. The following image is just one of the many examples that shows his scribble marks from the full score of Harpsichord Concerto in F-Major, BWV 1057 (Leipzig, 1738/1739):

Duration and rhythm are displayed graphically in bars of equal length marked off by bar lines:1

Unfortunately, Rousseau’s proposal was not accepted by the Académie, but he stuck to his cipher-notation and remained “spirited” and “enthusiastic” as seen in his letter to Charles Burney shortly before Rousseau’s death in 1778. Even though his method was not immediately accepted, it was later adopted in the 19th century for children to sing in schools. Since then it has been adopted by Johann Pestalozzi in Switzerland, J.C. Niemeyer in his book Choralbuch in Ziffern (1814) and by Pierre Galin and Emile Chevé, which later became known as the Galin-Paris-Chevé Method for singing in schools in England.2

   There is a parallel between this effort and the tablature notation that preceded it 2 centuries ago; both attempted to simplify the process for the musician and the publisher and were sprung from a need of a new invention. In closing is the opening remark of Projet where Rousseau addresses people’s reluctance to give away what they think is familiar:

As musical notation has remained for so long in the state of imperfection in which it is still found today, it is surprising that no one has realised that the difficulty experienced in reading music is due to the symbols employed, and not inherent in the art itself. It is true that new systems of notation, such as this one, are often put forward; but since they invariably lack the advantages of ordinary notation while preserving almost all its disadvantages, I consider none of them successful. Some, which have appeared satisfactory in theory, have proved too superficial in practice; but, in general, the narrow and restricted outlook of ordinary musicians has prevented the adoption of a universal and rational plan, and blinded them to the inconvenience of their art—out of whose true perfection they contrived confusion.3

A Contemporary Dutch Keyboard Tablature

   Nearly 2 centuries later is a Dutchman contemplating on the difficulties of the traditional music notation the same way Rousseau did. Shipbuilder and avid amateur musician Cornelis Pot (1885-1977) devised Klavarskribo (Klavar, for short), a new touch notation based on the graphical visualization of the keyboard.4 Klavar uses a vertical staff read from top to bottom with the note heads indicating upper or lower keys (black for upper key and white for lower) according to their arrangement on the keyboard with stem direction indicating which hand plays the note:5

His Orgelbüchlein, BWV 599−644, an autograph set of 45 keyboard chorale preludes, contains tablature writings, in this case to finish off a piece at the end of the page:

Pot presented his new method on November 1, 1931; however, his method was not readily accepted by the music community in his time. He was disappointed but was able to fund himself to keep transcribing music into Klavar. After his death in 1977, the Klavarskribo Foundation in Ridderkerk (near Rotterdam), The Netherlands, continues to transcribe and publish music via its website for some 10,000 Klavar users in the world today.6 There is still a large group of amateur organists using this notation extensively in Holland. It does not use numbers or letters like the 16th-century keyboard tablatures, but it is a type of tablature in that it is purely a touch notation. As notation evolved drastically up to the 17th century and remained constant since then, it seems in each century there arose inquisitive inspirations out of dissatisfaction from the standard notation. Perhaps even the notation we are so used today, that some may consider familiar and absolute, is evolving and is subject to changes in the future.

Wir Chirstenleut, BWV 612 from Orgelbüchlein (Köthen, 1717-1723)7


   A more recent discovery of Bach tablature writing is autograph manuscripts of a 15-year-old Bach found in the archive of the Duchess Anna Amalia Library in Weimar in August 2006.They contain Bach’s keyboard arrangement of pieces by Dietrich Buxtehude and Johann Adam Reincken (1643-1722). Bach's signature on the document is clearly visible, and at the time of discovery, it was the new earliest source of Bach’s writing, for it clearly displayed his genius and talent at a much younger age than previously assumed.8 It is clear that his training in the classical repertoire and notation preceding his time served as a firm basis for his later compositions.

15-year-old Bach’s arrangement of An Wasserfluessen Babylon by Johann Adam Reincken




Jean-Jacques Rousseau
Projet Concernant de Nouveaux Signes pour la Musique
(Paris, 1742)

   A few decades later sits a Genevan philosopher on vacation reflecting on the invention of a simpler, more efficient notation:

Deprived of his pupils in that rural retreat, he began to ponder upon the trouble it had cost him to learn to read music. The fault, he decided, lay in the unnecessary complexity of accepted notation. Revolutionary that he was, he thereupon decided to devise a simpler method of writing down music which should supplant the existing system.
During the years that followed Rousseau perfected a notation of numerals designed to indicate tonal relationships. Upon that basis and with the aid of a few additional symbols he satisfied himself that not only simple melodies, but even a full orchestral score could be set down on paper.9

This was the beginning of Projet Concernant de Nouveaux Signes pour la Musique,10 a proposal for a new music notation that Jean-Jacques Rousseau (1712-1778) presented to l'Académie des sciences in Paris on August 22, 1742. It was a type of cipher notation, similar to the Spanish tablature, using numbers to indicate scale degrees. Rousseau felt that the traditional staff notation contained too much information, mostly unnecessary, and therefore, wanted to invent a simpler universal notation. His system may have been good for early stages of singing but was inadequate to contain all the information needed for complex instrumental writing. Even Jean-Philippe Rameau (1683-1764) pointed out that the “absence of pictorial element in his cipher-notation deprived an instrumentalist of a valuable property of staff notation—its capacity to show at a glance the ‘shape’ of a phrase.”11 Rousseau’s system employed numbers for each scale degree and used dots(·) to indicate which octave: a dot over the number meant upper octave and a dot under the number, lower. Sharps and flats were indicated by a slash (/ for sharp and \ for flat) through the number. Bar lines (|) indicated measures, and the dot (·) was used to indicate dotted rhythms. It had a movable solfa with an indication of starting note in a specific octave. Rests were indicated by zero (0). In short, it was possible to notate instrumental and vocal music in his system.12 The following are his points from Projet defending the new system:

In the first place, musical notation will be two three times easier to understand.

1st Because it will consist of fewer symbols.

2nd Because these symbols will be simpler.

3rd Because without further study the characters of the notes themselves also represent their intervals in relationships—instead of which, in ordinary notation, these relationships and intervals are very difficult to arrive at, and call for long experience and practice.

4th Because a single character can have no more than a single name—instead of which, in the ordinary system, each degree of the scale can have seven names, one in each key; which what causes such confusion that pupils can only overcome in after expenditure of much time, pain and trouble.

5th Because time values are more clearly showing than in ordinary notation, and the values of the rests and notes are also set out in a match simpler and more rational manner.

6th Because the key always been made known, it is always simpler to prelude and established the key: which is not the case with ordinary notation where pupils are often absent themselves by singing inaccurately, through not knowing the key in which they should be singing.

In the second place, this notation is more convenient and easy to write down, and takes up less space. Any kind of writing paper is suitable (no special manuscript paper is called for) and ordinary type is sufficient to print it: and so composers will not be put to such great expense in having their pieces engraved, nor the public in buying them.

Finally, composers will find this further advantage no less considerable; that arising from the simplicity of the notation, their harmony and their chords may be known simply by inspection of the symbols, and without those leaps from one clef to another which demand lengthy experience and which few attain so perfectly.13