Learn piano with tablature
Can you play the piano but have trouble reading piano music?
Many famous musicians could not read music. Internet sources suggest that they include Irving Berlin, Aretha Franklin, Elvis Presley, Michael Jackson, Tori Amos, Eric Clapton, Jimmi Hendrix, Lionel Ritchie, Taylor Swift, Bob Dylan, the Beatles, and the Bee Gees.
All those musicians could read music to some extent. At the very least, they could see the notes going up and down in the melody as they sang, and the relative sizes of the intervals. But many of them did not quite get the more complex aspects of the notation – which didn’t stop them creating great music.
If you can’t read piano music, you’re in good company. This text is for musical folks who, for whatever reason, never quite managed to deal with those treble and bass clefs and their complicated sharps, flats, and naturals.
A brief history of conventional music notation
Conventional European music notation is a great cultural achievement. It was developed gradually over centuries, and is now used to notate almost anything.
Accidentals are an important aspect of conventional notation. Accidentals are symbols that change the pitch of a note, usually by a semitone. Sharps (♯) raise the pitch and flats (♭) lower it. Sharps and flats remain in force until the next barline. If before that you want to return to the original pitch, you will need a natural (♮). Often, you will see a bunch of sharps or flats at the start of a line of music. This is the key signature, and it remains in force throughout the piece, or until a new key signature comes along.
When graphical music notation began in the 11th century, there were no accidentals or key signatures. Unaccompanied melodies in the 7-note diatonic scale (do re mi fa sol la ti) were notated graphically on a staff, by putting some notes on the lines and other in the spaces. That’s how Gregorian chant was first written down. Previously, it had been learned by ear and passed on by imitation.
In the next few centuries, music gradually became more complex. After a while, music notation was representing all 12 notes of the chromatic scale relative to the original 7 notes of the diatonic scale. That was made possible by accidentals. Key signatures were used when the music was based on scales that included black keys.
The notation we use today stabilized in the 18th century. Since then, conventional Western music notation has been used to notate a staggering amount and variety of music, which demonstrates its enormously flexibility.
But conventional notation is not necessarily the best solution for all applications. Take the guitar. The relationship between what you see in a conventional guitar score and where you put your fingers on the fretboard is very complex. That is why a lot of guitarists use tablature, which shows more directly where to put your fingers.
Piano music has a similar problem. The relationship between what you see and what you do with your fingers is complex. If music notation had been designed with only piano in mind, it would have looked very different.
What’s wrong with conventional notation for piano?
On the piano keyboard, the note C is always just to the left of the two black keys.
But in a musical score, the note C looks different in every register:
Moreover, each note can be notated in at least two different ways, called enharmonic equivalents. The note C sharp (C♯) can be written D flat (D♭). The note C can be notated B-sharp (B♯), C-natural (C♮), or D-double-flat (D♭♭).
Combining the first problem with the second, we can generate 18 different notations for what is essentially for the same piano key:
All of these 18 notations happen often in real music. The problem gets more extreme, the more complex the music gets.
Graphic keyboard tablature
Conventional music notation is sometimes called graphic because it is similar to a graph of pitch against time. Pitch is the vertical axis and time is the horizontal axis.
Conventional music notation is also symbolic because it relies on symbols with special meanings. Pitch symbols include bass and treble clef symbols and accidentals (sharps, flats, and naturals). Time symbols include time signatures, barlines, and note durations (whole note, half note, quarter note, eighth note and so on – also called breve, minim, crotchet, quaver respectively).
A possible way to make music for piano easier to read is to make it more graphic and less symbolic – more like a graph. Pitch then corresponds more simply to vertical distance and time to horizontal distance. Notation inventors of the past did this in various ways, creating notations that we might call graphic keyboard tablatures. By “tablature” we mean a notation that is designed for a specific instrument, such as guitar tablature. In graphic keyboard tablatures, staff lines usually correspond to black keys and spaces to white keys.
The version of keyboard tablature that we are proposing here is called Keyboard Trigram, because it is intended for keyboard players and based on a three-line staff. A staff or stave is a group of parallel, equally spaced horizontal lines. The five-line staff of conventional music notation is sometimes called a pentagram.
In Keyboard Trigram, the note C always looks like this:
The trigram corresponds to groups of three black notes on the keyboard. The short lines (called leger lines or ledger lines) are the groups of two black notes. On the keyboard, the note C is just to the left of the two black notes. In the notation, the note C is just under the two leger lines.
The full modern piano keyboard has just over 7 octaves, and it includes 8 Cs. The lowest C is called C1 and the highest is C8. In Keyboard Trigram, these 8 Cs all look the same, apart from their position relative to familiar conventional treble and bass clef symbols.
In conventional notation, the terms “treble clef” and “treble staff” refer to a 5-line staff whose lines correspond to pitches E4, G4, B4, D5, and F5. Strictly speaking, the treble clef (also called the G clef) refers to just one of those pitches: G4. Similarly, the bass clef (also called the F clef) refers to F3. The meaning of these clefs is the same in Keyboard Trigram. The inside of the curly part of the treble clef is aligned with G4, and the space between the two dots in the bass clef is aligned with F3.
Keyboard Trigram offers an additional way of orienting yourself at the keyboard. The barlines (the vertical lines between measures) always cover the range that you see above: the four groups of three black notes that are closest to middle C (C4). Specifically, barlines always span the range F♯2 to B♭5. So middle C is near the middle of each barline.
Why learn keyboard tablature?
Alternative music notations have been around for a long time. In the past, people were reluctant to learn them because the available music was limited.
Today, things have changed. You can get an almost unlimited supply of free piano music in electronic form – for example, as MIDI files from the platform Musescore. To take advantage of that, we have developed an app that can transcribe almost any such file into Keyboard Trigram.
That has made it worthwhile to learn a keyboard tablature – for the first time in history. Almost any music that you might want to play one day is already available in Keyboard Trigram. Our app transcribes the most popular piano scores, whether classical, jazz, pop, or something else. Currently, it cannot deal with music in strange time signatures like 7/8, music that changes from one time signature to another, or contemporary music with unusual notation. We are working on it.
Some people are still reluctant to learn a keyboard tablature, and it’s understandable. They argue that sooner or later users of keyboard tablature will have to learn conventional notation anyway. So why not learn it straight away? Our app shows that it ain’t necessarily so. Some keyboard tablature users will later learn conventional notation, and some won’t. When the advantages of keyboard tablature become clear, and almost anything can be transcribed into keyboard tablature, people are likely to stick with it.
That raises interesting questions about music-notational bilingualism. Is it possible to be fluent in two different notation systems for the same music? The experience of guitarists using both classical notation and guitar tablature suggests that it is. Our experience with keyboard tablature has been similarly positive. The opportunity to automatically generate a practically limitless library of musical scores in keyboard tablature means that pianists at all levels, from beginner to professional, now have the opportunity to acquire corresponding reading skills - whether in our version of keyboard tablature or one of the others with staff lines corresponding to black keys. With some practice using our version, a staff of five lines looks quite different from a staff of three, so the two will not be confused. In both cases, fluency involves learning to recognize a large vocabulary of visual patterns and to link them to musical elements, just as bilingualism is about learning many sound patterns and linking them to linguistic meanings. Like regular bilingualism, music-notational bilingualism allows a musician to perceive musical structures in different ways and from contrasting perspectives, enriching cultural diversity.
How to use keyboard tablature
To learn a piece in keyboard tablature, here's what to do.
- Listen to a recording of the piece, and/or the MIDI file from which the notation was created.
- Use keyboard tablature to help you find the right notes. Then imitate the sound of the performance.
What is not notated in keyboard tablature?
Our notation focuses on what most amateur pianists need to know: where to put your fingers on the keyboard. To avoid clutter, we leave the rest out.
We leave out the symbolic aspect of conventional rhythm notation. Instead, we mark barlines (as full lines) and beats (as dotted lines), corresponding to the conventional key signature. We focus on notating the start (onset) or each note and are working on different ways of notating the duration or offset.
Our tablature retains three aspects of conventional rhythm notation:
- The distance between the notes, from left to right, is roughly proportional to the time difference.
- We use barlines, but in a different way. In in our scores, the barlines go right through the middle of the noteheads at the start of each measure. In conventional notation, barlines are slightly to the left of the first notes in a measure.
- We retain the conventional distinction between full and open noteheads. Relatively long notes (notes that need to be held down for longer) are notated with open noteheads, and others with full noteheads. If the composer notated a half or whole note, we use an open notehead; if a quarter note or less, a full notehead.
Our notation does not tell you which hand should be playing which note, nor does it tell you which fingers to use. Actually, conventional notation does not necessarily do that either – think of Bach fugues in which the inner voices are played alternately by the left and the right hand. But you can add fingerings to Keyboard Trigram scores in the usual way.
Adding conventional rhythm notation
It is possible to add conventional rhythm notation to a Keyboard Trigram score by hand. Just copy the note stems and beams from the conventional score.
To prepare a professional performance, you will need to study the original score. First, clarify the durations of the tones, marking some of them on the keyboard tablature by hand, as an aid to your memory. That means copying note stems, beams, and ties. You may also want to copy phrase marks. To avoid clutter, mark only the symbols that you need to know. If you are working with a teacher, she or he will help you.
If you are uncertain about whether or not to annotate your keyboard tablature, or how much to annotate, remember this: From a historical perspective, musical scores never included all intended details of the performance. We have little idea what Mozart's or Chopin's performances of their own music actually sounded like, but we can be sure that those composers had many interesting but unnotated ideas about the performance of their works. The instructions about dynamics, rubato, pedal and so on that you find in their scores are not very specific, which today allows for a range of interpretations.
Advantages and disadvantages of keyboard tablature
The main advantages have already been mentioned. Every octave register looks the same, and there is a one-to-one correspondence between symbols and piano keys.
Space. The amount of space the notation takes up on the page is about the same as for conventional notation. From left to right, eliminating accidentals means we can fit more music onto one line. From low to high, the staff takes up more vertical space than conventional piano music with treble and bass clef. Combining those two points, the notation usually takes up about the same space as conventional notation, in the end. But music that uses all seven octaves of the piano will need more space. That can be seen as an advantage: the notation shows you the graphical relationship between your hands and the keyboard – more clearly than conventional notation does.
Complexity. Keyboard Trigram is not for “easy piano”. It works well for both simple and complex music. Our examples here are confined to relatively simple music, but the advantages become most apparent for music that is highly chromatic, or music that involves a lot of jumping around, up and down the keyboard.
Is it ok to change a venerable musical tradition?
Many wonder about this. In fact, we are not changing any tradition. Conventional notation will not be affected by any kind of piano tablature, just as it is unaffected by guitar tablature.
But some pianists are skeptical. Conventional notation is what great composers used to write down their musical ideas. What would they have thought of keyboard tablature? In most cases, we will never know, but think of this: They might have liked a project that helps people to play music that they could not otherwise have played. Composers are creative, innovative people. They liked to experiment with new ways of doing things, which is what we are doing.
Some worry if it is ok to omit enharmonic spellings from music notation. Enharmonics are different notations for the same key on the keyboard, e.g. F# or G♭. Will something essential be lost if we don't know whether a particular note was originally notated F# or G♭? Musicologists and music theorists will answer this question differently, but that is not the point. The aim of keyboard tablature is not to reproduce all aspects of the original notation. The aim is to help piano players press the right keys in the right order.
In any case, even conventional notation doesn’t notate everything. It doesn’t tell you how hard to press each key, or the exact timing of key presses and releases, or the exact timing of pedaling. Knowing about enharmonic spellings will not help you to be a great performer. But if you are curious about whether you are currently playing a C♯ or a D♭, you can always check the original score.
There is also an aesthetic issue. Conventional music notation is beautiful because it is familiar (in general, we like familiar things) and because we associate it with beautiful music. If you dislike our Keyboard Trigram when you see it for the first time, the reason might be either lack of familiarity, or lack of association between the appearance of the notation and the sound of good music. Your perception will change as you start to use it. Similarly, mathematicians might find certain graphs beautiful because they understand the underlying math, whereas others might not.
We are studying how pianists learn keyboard tablature. If that's you, we want to find out about your motivation, your musical background, the musical issues that are important for you, the kind of music you want to play, how quickly you make progress, what you need to achieve your goals, and so on. To answer these questions in a qualitative study, we are looking for participants would like to take part in an empirical study of this kind, and either play the piano or keyboard by ear or can’t read conventional music notation, or both.
Here is the deal:
- We will help you to learn music this way.
- We will keep confidential records of your progress and the various musical and other issues that you spontaneously address during lessons. We will not electronically record interviews unless you give us permission.
In any future academic publication, the ideas that we get from talking to you will be anonymized so that you cannot be identified. The results of the study will help music educators to develop and improve their approach to this kind of teaching, so that more people can enjoy the benefits of learning to play the piano or keyboard.
To get started, we will ask you what pieces you would like to learn. We will then arrange a Skype call to introduce you to our notation of those pieces, and help you get started. During the call, both you and we will sit at the piano keyboard. Later, we will talk again.
The project leader
Richard Parncutt is Professor of Systematic Musicology at the University of Graz, Austria. As a pianist, he holds a Bachelor of Music degree from the University of Melbourne. In the past, he performed many solo recitals (three times as a soloist with different amateur orchestras). As a psychologist, he has many frequently cited publications that address aspects of music psychology, often focusing on the perception of musical structure (see Google Scholar) – but also, for example, the psychology of piano fingering. He was a member of the Music Notation Modernization Association (MNMA) when it was founded in 1985 by Thomas Reed, and has carefully studied countless alternative notation proposals. Further information:
About our keyboard tablature
Keyboard Trigram is presented on the MNMA homepage here:
Keyboard Trigram was also discussed in a book chapter:
Parncutt, R. (1999). Systematic evaluation of the psychological effectiveness of non-conventional notations and keyboard tablatures. In Zannos, I. (Ed.), Music and Signs (pp. 146-174). Bratislava, Slovakia: ASCO Art & Science.
For examples of our keyboard tablature, see the links below. If you would like us to transcribe a particular piece, let us know. If you would like to transcribe the music yourself, our app is available to anyone free of charge. Please write to keyboardtablature at gmail.com.
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