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tab vs sheet

If you find it difficult to read sheet music, even though you have tried your hardest to learn it, then you are not alone. Béla Fleck was brought up in a classical music playing household and is widely acknowledged as one of the world's most innovative and technically proficient banjo players. In 2001 he recorded "Perpetual Motion". It contained pieces by Bach, Beethoven, Chopin, Tchaikovsky, Scarlatti, Debussy, and Paganini.

For the album Béla used two banjos, a 1937 Gibson style 75 and a mid-1980s Gold Star. He was accompanied by Joshua Bell (violin - Tom Taylor Stradivarius, 1732), Edgar Meyer (bass - customised Gabriella, 1769), Gary Hoffman (cello - Nicoló Amati, 1662), John Williams (guitar - Smallwood), Evelyn Glennie (marimba - Malletech), Chris Thile (mandolin - Lynn Dudnebostal F5), and James Bryan Sutton (guitar - Bourgeois D150).

Béla Fleck describes himself as "a terrible manuscript reader", and prefers to use tablature.

The main difference between tab and sheet is that tab is initially easier to read but is instrument specific, whereas sheet is initially harder to read but is written in a common musical language and groups the notes so as to display the phrasing. Tab is diagramatic and can be quickly understood; sheet is abstract and needs to be learned.

There is nothing in sheet which can not be displayed in tab, and vice versa. Timing and phrasing are clearer in sheet; fingering is clearer in tab. Sheet generally (but not always) contains less mistakes; tab, when text-based, is simpler to create, edit and distribute. Tab is often badly written and hard to understand; ditto many original manuscripts. Problems re authenticity and copyright are common to both.

Neither tab nor sheet excels in defining how the music is intended to be heard. Ambiguity is hard to avoid when using symbols to represent sounds. However interpretation is no longer so dependent on the experience of teachers and memories of live performances, but can be supplemented with audio recordings, radio & television performances, MIDIs, videos etc.

Tab or sheet? If a piece is familiar, tab will often suffice; if a piece is unfamiliar, sheet is likely to be more reliable. To investigate the composer's intentions the original should be consulted, which may of course be either.

Very occasionally i get abusive emails about the tablature page, or emails threatening legal action, though they are far less frequent than they used to be. Some of them are just silly, whilst others are from people who have commercial reasons for attacking the site.

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revised 24 January 2020