How to Read Mountain Dulcimer Music

Introduction to Tablature Notation

by Paul Furnas

Staff notation - the type of musical notation that you expect to see when you open a typical book of music - was invented in Italy around the year 1000. It was originally designed for church singers, to help them to learn the hundreds of different Gregorian chants that they were required to sing throughout the church year. It gradually evolved to where it is now used by almost every instrument played in Europe and North America.

About 500 years ago an extremely easy and practical notation called "tablature" was developed specifically for fretted stringed instruments such as the lute, the guitar, and their numerous cousins. Tablature was very popular for three centuries but then declined in the nineteenth century, only to be revived in the mid-twentieth century by American folk- and country-musicians with their guitars, banjos, mandolins, and mountain dulcimers.

Tablature and staff notation have a superficial similarity to the eye in that they both use a background of parallel horizontal lines. The lines in staff notation can be viewed as rungs on a very wide ladder that let you see the pitch of a note (i.e. how high or how low the note's pitch is). Higher notes are on higher "rungs" and lower notes are on lower "rungs" of the "ladder."

The horizontal lines in tablature, however represent the strings on a fretted instrument: guitar tablature uses six lines, banjo tablature uses five lines, mandolin tablature uses four lines, and dulcimer tablature generally uses three lines. Double strings (such as the six pairs of strings on a 12-string guitar, or the four pairs of strings on a mandolin, or the pair of treble strings on many dulcimers) are represented by a single line because the player's fingers treat the double strings as if they were merely slightly wider versions of normal single strings.

In tablature, numbers are placed on the horizontal lines. Each individual number indicates the fret at which a left-hand finger should press down on the string while the right hand plucks or strums the string. The number "0" indicates that the left hand doesn't need to press down on the string but that the right hand should pluck or strum the "open" string. The number "1" indicates the first fret in from the left end of the dulcimer (where the tuning pegs are located). The number "2" indicates the second fret in from the left end of the dulcimer, etc.

Tablature lines and numbers make it very easy to know where to put your fingers on the strings to play the individual notes, but they don't tell you how long a particular note should last. To show how long a note lasts, the tablature example borrows the same "note values" that are used in staff notation. IF YOU CAN SING "Frere Jacques" YOU ALREADY KNOW THE THREE MOST COMMON NOTE VALUES, even if you don't yet know their names or the graphic symbols that are used for writing them.

Here are two musical terms for you: "beat" and "tempo." A note value tells you how long a note lasts in "beats." The rate of speed at which the beats occur is called the "tempo." Historically tempos have been based on the human pulse rate. Tempos ranging from 60 to 80 beats per minute are very common, but the tempo of a piece can be considerably faster or slower as well.

There is no precise or official length of time for any specific note value, but once you have decided on the tempo (or pulse rate) of a particular piece of music, any given note value in that piece will be exactly half as long (or twice as long) as the next slower (or next faster) note value. DON'T PANIC! As I said before, if you can sing "Frere Jacques" you already know this stuff, and I'm about to give you a simple rule of thumb that will make it easy for you to decipher the graphic symbols for note values.

The longest note value you are likely to encounter lasts for four beats, or roughly as long as it takes for an army drill sergeant to say "Hut, two, three, four." It is most likely to occur as the very last note in a piece. It is called a "whole-note" because it fills the "whole" length of a 4-beat measure of music. Most pieces of music are divided into "measures" that consist of four beats each but there are common exceptions (such as waltzes, which use 3-beat measures).

Here is the rule of thumb for deciphering the graphic symbols for note values: IF YOU WANT TO MAKE A NOTE VALUE TWICE AS FAST, JUST ADD MORE INK TO ITS GRAPHIC SYMBOL. You are now ready to learn five different note-values: the whole-note, the half-note, the quarter-note, the eighth-note, and the sixteenth-note.

The whole-note is four beats long and its symbol is a white oval that looks like an tiny egg but is technically called a "note-head." The half-note (which fills only half of a common 4-beat measure) is only two beats long and its graphic symbol consists of a white oval note-head plus an extra bit of ink in the form of a thin vertical line called a "note-stem." Half-notes and all note values that are faster than half-notes have note-stems.

A quarter-note (which fills only one-quarter of a common 4-beat measure) is only one beat long, and its graphic symbol is similar to the half-note's in that is consists of a note-head plus a note-stem, but you add ink to the oval note-head so that the note-head is black instead of white. Quarter-notes and all notes that are faster than quarter-notes have black note-heads.

An eighth-note is only half a beat long and its graphic symbol is a black note-head at one of a note-stem plus a note-flag attached to the other end of the note-stem. Imagine the note-stem as a flagpole and the note-flag as a long-pennant attached to the note-stem's flagpole. If two eight-notes are adjacent to each other, their two individual note-flags usually are joined into a single thick horizontal "beam" that connects the two note-stems.

Faster notes merely add more flags (or beams) to the note-stem. A sixteenth-note (which has two flags) is the fastest note-value that you are like to see in dulcimer tablature. "Frere Jacques" uses only the three most common note-values: the quarter-note, the eighth-note, and the half-note. The vast majority of note-values that you will find in dulcimer tablature will be one of these three note-values.

In modern folk- and country-music publications, tablature often appears together with staff notation (as in the example above), in which case the tablature makes use of the note values that already appear in the staff notation. (See Editor's Notes below.) When tablature appears by itself, as in the example below, the note-values usually appear as close as possible to the tablature line that represents the melody string. These tablature-only note values frequently appear without their note-heads. In the example below I have shifted all the note values by one degree to give your eyes a chance to practice comparing eighth-notes and sixteenth-notes. Notice that the tablature example above is for a dulcimer using the D-A-A tuning and that the example below is for a dulcimer using the D-A-d tuning.

EDITOR'S NOTES: Some more important information on reading mountain dulcimer tablatures:

This article gives excellent "basic training" in reading music and fundamental tablatures. In other articles on Dulcimer Sessions that contain mountain dulcimer music you will encounter other features in the tablatures that help you play. Here is a description of them:

The fret numbers in this article are written on the line. Often they are shown in tablature written right above the line. In either case, it is telling you to play on the same string.

Sometimes you will see capital letters above the staff. They tell you what chord to use to accompany the melody. These can be played on any accompaniment instrument, such as a guitar or another mountain dulcimer.

The staff notation written above the tablature usually presents the basic melody line (like your voice would sing), and the rhythms are those of the basic melody. However, tablatures often suggest a strumming or a picking pattern to fill long notes or to show the author's style. That means time values in tablatures are often different from those shown for the basic melody in the staff. This is demonstrated in the following tablature for "Old Joe Clark" written by Madeline MacNeil in our July issue (see our Back Issues on the main page). Note the last measure in the line.

Having time values right below the tablature also makes it easier for your eye to read the rhythm. Sometimes the stems of the timing symbols below the tablature are connected to the fret number. They mean the same either connected or below the tablature.

First and Second Endings:
As you progress in playing from tablature, you will notice that some pieces have repeat signs and 1st and 2nd endings...

Hammer-ons, Pull-offs, and Slides:
These consist of two or more notes played with only one strum or picking motion. Here are examples of how they look and how to play them:

Sometimes the author puts an "H" by the arc for a hammer-on, or a "P" by the arc for a pull-off, or an "S" by the arc for a slide.

Some tablatures include suggested fingerings. Typically, a "T" next to a fret number would mean you use your Thumb to fret it. "I" would be Index finger. "M" Middle finger. "R" Ring. "P" Pinky. Most arrangers prefer to use these letters so fingerings are not confused with fret numbers, but occasionally an author will indicate fingerings with finger numbers (T for thumb, 1 for index, 2 for middle, 3 for ring, or 4 for pinky.)

Paul Furnas

After earning a Ph.D. in Early Music Performance Practices, Paul Furnas got a day job as a computer programmer. He was pleasantly surprised to discover that his doctoral dissertation on the Lyra Viol (a 17th-century English style of viola da gamba that uses tablature notation and variant tunings) proved to be ideal training when he began to write finger-picking music for the mountain dulcimer in the late 1970's. Over the past twenty years he has contributed numerous articles to the Dulcimer Players News.

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