Reading Lute Tablature

This is a brief instructional on how to read lute tablature as it was written by members of the English Lute School (which included luminaries such as Dowland and Campion). In particular it will help you to read lute tablature as it appears on hypertext pages

A Brief History of the Lute

The Lute is a stringed instrument of Arabic origin, that is thought to have been imported into Europe around the fourteenth century. The lute evolved in Western Europe from a melody instrument, plucked with a plectrum, to a chordal instrument, played with the fingers.

The lute as played by the late Elizabethans was typically of six courses and eleven strings (like a modern twelve string guitar, except that the course of highest pitch had only one string). The strings of every course were tuned in unison, and overall had a tuning of GCFADG. For those who like mnemonics, you may try to remember German Courtiers Flee A Drunken Guitarist. If you possess a classical guitar, and wish to give yourself a similar tuning, tune your G string down a semitone to F#. If you want the exact tuning (for instance, when you are playing as an accompanist), put a capo on the third fret.

Towards the end of the sixteenth century lower courses started being added to the lute. The seventh course was tuned to either a D or an F. Obviously to read tablature you will need to determine which tuning is being used. The only sure way to do this is to look at the chords being used while the seventh fret is being played, and use this to determine which tuning makes sense. A quick rule of thumb is that if the seventh course is fingered above the first fret then it is probably tuned to D. Most books printed at the time will only use the one tuning for the seventh course throughout (Dowland's airs had the seventh course tuned to D, Campion's airs had the seventh course tuned to F), but there are a number of exceptions, including Thomas Robinson's School of Musicke which uses both. The presence of an eighth course could also alter the tuning of the seventh (usually to F).

Reading Elizabethan Lute Tablature

In standard lute tablature, each stave has six lines, representing the six courses of a lute. The course of highest pitch appears at the top, and that of lowest appears at the bottom, hence:

G____________________
D____________________
A____________________
F____________________
C____________________
G____________________
On each of these lines are placed letters to represent notes. If you are required to play an open D string, for instance, a small "a" will be placed on the appropriate line. For a note with the finger on the first fret, a "b", a note on the second fret, a "c", etc. The only excpetion to this is that no "j" is used, as it was considered to be more or less the same as "i". So:

G___a___
D___a___
A___b___
F___c___
C___c___
G___a___
would represent a Gm chord, and in normal guitar tuning would be an E chord.

C If a seventh course were used its symbol would appear below the sixth (funny that). If an eighth were used, it would appear in the same place, but with a line above it. Similarly a ninth course note would have two lines above it (//a in ASCII for an open ninth course).

The only other thing to be said about this forpart of the notationn is that the symbol # does not mean sharp. It does in fact represetnt a trill. The exact form tof the trill is not known, but it did appear to have a specific meaning. Generally, one just trills with the note in the scale above the note in question.

Timing is fairly straight forward. A semi-breve is represented by a stick, with a tail pointing to the left (/|), a minim by a simple stick (|), a crotchet by a stick with a tail pointing to the right (|\), a quaver by a stick with two tails pointing to the right, and so on. The duration of a note is determined by the time indicator above it. If there is no time indicator above a note, its duration is equal to that of the last note. For notes that last one and a half times as long as normal, a dot is added to the side of the time indicator, as in normal sheet music.

In ASCII however, it proves to me more convenient to write time indicators as numbers instead. In this case a semi-breve is a 1, a minim is a 2, a crotchet is a 3 etc.

French tablature was not universally written in this way, and a number of minor variations are worth noting. In the early sixteenth century only five lines were used to represent the strings. Any notes being played on the sixth course were simply displayed below the fifth. Additionally, letters were sometimes written on the line rather than above it and capital letters were sometimes used instead of small letters. One publication by Attaignant carries all three variations mentioned here.

Other Tablature Methods

There are two major variations of this form of tablature. Firstly, letters being replaced by numbers. This leads to the system used in modern guitar tablature, and has the elegant advantage of "0" representing an open fret.

Secondly, the tablature may be written upside down. This system is more logical, in that you are essentially looking at the mirror image of your instrument. Unfortunately, for whatever reason, I do not find it as natural to play.

Different areas used different notations at different times, but in general, the French and English used the above system (often refered to as French tablature), the Italians used the above system, with the second change, and the Spanish used both changes. German Tablature is completely different all together.


Conrad Leviston, 1996.
Please send corrections/comments to the author