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The Weekly Guitar Session

Week Number Thirty Eight -- Updated June 30, 2005

Understanding Lute Tablature &Transcription Basics

Part Two

The day will come when you will hear a piece of music performed on the lute and won't be able to find a guitar transcription. Or maybe you'll realize that what you thought was a good scholarly transcription is actually full of interpretive errors and not in the style of the period the original was written in. Whatever the reason, you will want to take a look at the original lute score. So you schlep down to the music library and find the piece. What? What is this gobbledy gook? It's lute tab and unless you're familiar with at least three different methods of intabulation, you are sunk.

Onwards and Upwards Spanish, Italian and French Tab :


Spanish and Italian Tablature

Spanish Intabulation

In both methods of intabulation, six horizontal lines represent the six courses of the lute. (Courses one through six on instruments with a greater number of courses.) Arabic numbers are used to indicate the fret at which the courses are intended to be stopped. 0 indicates an open or unstopped course, 1 indicates first fret, 2 indicates second fret, and so forth. The numbers are written on the line. For example:


Rhythm is notated above the staff, each note, or group of notes in vertical alignment representing a chord, receiving a symbol.

This ...................................................................Transcribes to this.

Sustained pitches in voices occurring simultaneously with a voice or voices containing pitches of shorter duration cannot be notated leading to a certain ambiguity.

Scholars have concluded that the standard tuning for the vihuela and lute in Spain was the ‘g' tuning previously described. We do not know whether the 16th century g was the same pitch as g in modern concert pitch. We do know that intervalically the strings were arranged Perfect fourth, Perfect fourth, Major third, Perfect fourth, Perfect fourth. (G, c, f, a, d', g')

From these open courses, we can generate the following table by “going by the numbers”!

COURSE: 0 1 2 3 4 5 6 7 8

I g' g'# a' a'# b' c” c”# d” d”#

II d” d”# e' f' f'# g' g' g'# a'

III a a# b c” c”# d” d”# e' f'

IV f f'# g' g' g'# a' a'# b' c”

V c c# d d# e f f# g g#

VI g g# a a# b c c# d d#

Italian Intabulation

Italian tablatures differ from Spanish works in that the horizontal lines graphically representing the courses are meant to be interpreted in reverse compared to the Spanish. The line representing the highest pitched course (the first) is the bottom line of the tablature staff. Willi Apell in The Notation of Polyphonic Music writes “The lutenist playing from such a book [Italian tablature] consequently connects the signs written on the top line with the highest string of his instrument which, in sound, is the lowest.” Rhythmic considerations are arranged similarly to Spanish tab.

French Intabulation

Probably the earliest example of French lute tablature we now possess, Tres breve et familiere introduction pour entendre et apprendre par soy mesme a iouer toutes chansons reduictes en la tabulature du Lutz avec la maniere daccorder dict Lutz... published in Paris, 1529, appears to have been designed as a self—instruction manual for the lute. It contains highly detailed explanations of the features of this intabulation system. Another book, Dixhuit basse dances garnies de hecoupes et Tordions..., le tout reduyt en la tabulature du Lutz was also published in 1529 by Attaignant in Paris.

These two books give us a wealth of information on both tablature and typical repertoire for the instrument during the seventeenth century in France.

In the French intabulation system, the fingerboard's eight frets, touches in French, are marked as o for first, c for second, d for third, e for fourth, f for fifth, g for sixth, h for seventh and i for eighth. The letter ‘a' marks an open course. This is identical with English intabulation. The courses of the lute, orders in French, were tuned G, c, f, a, d', g', lowest to highest. The first single string course was called the chanterelle. The 1529 books contain works for the six course lute. As the instrument gained more courses, the notation required no alterations except the addition of lines below the staff resembling the ledger lines of standard notation to indicate the additional courses.

The French system uses the same metric symbols as the English, written above the staff. Metric symbols written on the staff indicate rests of corresponding value. This system of intabulation described in the previous paragraphs was known as Vieil Ton after circa 1640, when Denis Gaultier (1600 — 1672) made popular a new tuning, called Nouveau Ton (a literal translation of New Tuning). This tuning yielded a broad d minor chord across the open courses.— A, d, f, a, d', f'. All symbols remained the same, although some earlier tablature used capital letters while Gaultier used lower case. This system, with some slight modifications, each composer having his own favorite “tricks” and quirks, remained in use until the eighteenth century. Nouveau Ton used many other tunings, known as Scordatura , in certain pieces to facilitate their performance, or to add an unusual effect. Tunings varying from the norm are indicated at the start of the piece of a notation such as the following:






This indicates that the eighth course is tuned one octave below the pitch made when the fourth course is stopped or fretted at the first fret, and the eleventh course is tuned one octave below the pitch made when the sixth course is stopped at the fourth fret.


The possible bass courses in Nouveau ton are notated as follows:




Returning to the first six courses in Nouveau ton, we can construct the following chart of produced pitches:










Tuning was not the only difference between Nouveau ton and the older Vieil ton. In Gaultier' s works we find the following symbols for the indication of pitch duration:






In the seventeenth century, a book of lute music was published in England. The tablature contained therein possessed in certain instances a diagonal line drawn underneath (or above) groups of intabulated notes. As Thomas Mace explains in this book, Musick's Monument (London, 1676): “ it is also necessarie to give thee to understande, to what purpose the barres that be drawen bias, under letters or passages doe serve for, and for thy better understandying, I have here drawen thee an example at large, and very familier, in whiche thou shalt not finde one example, trimmed or measured, that thou shalte neede to remove any of thy fingers, from the said measure: the knowledge of the said oarre is so necessarie, that havying founde out, and exercised the same, thou shalte not neede to remove but those fingers whiche thou shalte be forced, whiche we call close or couert plai.” (This passage is as quoted in WilIi Apell's The Notation of Polyphonic Music .)






The diagonal bars indicated sustained tones or chords, a technique called “close” or “covered” play. In this way, sustained bass notes, as in the previous example, can b indicated.


Between 1620 and 1650, there was much experimentation with tunings and number of bass courses. we have touched slightly upon this fact already. The following is a list of some of the composers one will most likely encounter when researching music of this period, and their peculiar methods of notating bass courses.

Primo Libro d'intavolatura di liuto — Michelangelo Galilei (Munich 1620), in descending order of courses, a, 8, 9, X.

Tablatures of Fridevici — 7, 8, 9, 10.

Tablatures of Dusiacki (Padua 1620) — composed for seven additional

bass courses, a, 8, 9, X, XI, XII, XIII.

Lute book of ~Virginia Renata von Gehema —

This may seem to be more information than the guitarist really wants or needs, but as there is probably more music available in lute tablature than in standard notation, to not read lute tab virtually cuts the guitarist off from a vast unmined musical resource.

The following pieces were originally written for the Vihuela and intabulated in the Spanish system of intabulation. Volumes more exist – volumes not performed by modern guitarists. Research these volumes available in most college and university music libraries. Your transcriptions build the instrument's repertoire.



Back to Part One


Next time, the last common method of intabulation. Once we've gotten a handle on how the stuff is notated, we'll begin transcribing some pieces for the guitar. Okay?

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