Historic TABS: Request for comments on bass string notation

• Jun 30, 2015 - 10:15

I am currently working on implementing the notation for bass strings in historic tablatures (lute and sim. or viol) along the guide lines outlined below. If anything goes well, it is targeted at MuseScore version 2.1.

The resources I can invest on this are limited, then not all documented formats will be (initially?) supported, but only the most common.

As I am mostly familiar with viol tablatures (which are only of the French type), comments and suggestions from lutenists and players of other Renaissance/Baroque plucked instruments are very welcome (some familiarity with early tablatures and with current MuseScore tab implementation is assumed).

Supported formats:
1) French tablatures: letters with prefixed slash-like strokes right under the tab body (i.e. 7th string: "a", 8th string: "/a", 9th string: "//a" and so on, all in the first position below the tab body).

2) Italian tablatures: numbers with 'ledger line'-like segment of string above the tab body (i.e. 7th string: "0" one position above the tab body with one 'ledger line'; 8th string: "0" two positions above the tab body with two 'ledger lines' and so on); the format where the number refers to the string rather than to the fret will not be supported (initially?). Comments from lutenists on this are particularly welcome:

3) Only via keyboard: by moving the note entry cursor below (French) or above (Italian) the tab body, 'shadow' slashes or ledger lines will indicate the target string to which the fret mark will be applied; pressing one of the fret keys, will enter (and lay out) the note on that string.

4) Mouse note entry will not be supported (initially?): as in the French notation the vertical position does not correspond to the string, pointing via the mouse would be counter-intuitive anyway.

5) For open strings, only 0/a will be accepted as fret mark; any other fret mark will be converted to 0/a.

6) For the French notation, only one bass note will be properly laid out for each chord: if there are more, they will be all lumped on a single spot. I do not remember any example of French tablature with more than one bass string per chord, but my experience might be limited, so comments on this point are particularly important.

7) Italian notation will support multiple bass notes, but the width of ledger lines may not accommodate fret mark of greatly different width.




Just to have an idea, this is the current status for bass strings in French tabs, with an example (two measures from a courante) from D. Gaultier, Pieces de luth, Paris 1670. There is room for improvement, but the basics are there, I believe.


(The plan is to also extend the range of fonts, including one more suited to such a late example, but this is another part of the project; for the moment being, the existing late Renaissance font is used.)

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In reply to by Miwarre

I can't comment on the feature itself but regarding fonts, it would be great to use a SMuFL compliant one if the symbols are available. There are whole ranges for "Renaissance lute tablature" and "French and English Renaissance lute tablature" and "Italian and Spanish Renaissance lute tablature"

In my experience, in both Italian and French tab, there are two "ledger lines" to play with. On *very* rare occasions, it is necessary to play both in the same chord. Maybe not often enough to worry about on a first pass. In French tab, the bourdons are represented by:
a /a //a ///a 4 5 6 7 below the staff. This notation allows for fretting of the bourdons up to the 10th course, represented by, e.g., b /d //c, ///b, etc. In Italian tab, the 7th course is sometimes represented by a 0 above the staff and the 8th course by a 0 above a ledger line. I have never seen more than one ledger line. This notation allows for the 7th and 8th courses to be fretted, as instead of 0, you could have 1, 2, etc. For a more than 8 course instrument, the bourdons are represented by numbers above the staff, starting at 7 or at 0, so

7 8 9 X 11 12 13 14 or

0 8 9 X 11 12 13 14

I have not seen ledger lines in this case, nor can fretting be indicated on these bourdons, so far as I know. See attached example.

On the mouse entry, I would want to be able to use the mouse for initial placement on the staff or in the score, as data entry often jumps around to different parts of the score and it would be a pain to use arrow keys to move some distance in the score. I would use arrow keys to reach nearby positions only. But I would, of course, not use the mouse to actually enter notes in tab as one would do in mensural notation.


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In reply to by sgerbode

@sgerbode: thanks for your comments!

As a general note, I would like to start as simple as possible so, when options are available, the plan is to focus on the most common / useful / currently used / ... option (then we'll see...). A few questions:

1) French: can you confirm that for instance "////a" is not used in French notation or, alternatively, that switching to numbers as soon as at 4 is acceptable as main (and initially only) option?

2) Italian: I know that Italian notation of bourdons is a mess; the point is exactly to select the option to start with, with the possible outcome that this will remain the only option for quite a while.

What about for instance 0 Ø 9 X 11 etc.?

3) Also on Italian notation, in all the example I have seen which use a 'ledger line', the line pass through the 0 of the bourdon, not below it; for instance, this example from O. Vecchi, Canzonette a tre voci, Venice, Gardano 1597:

can you confirm?

Then two notes:

*) Mouse: the current mouse operation will not change in any way (possibly, it will be slightly improved); my point 4) above refers to bourdon entry only: they will be reachable only via keyboard, from any nearby (or not so nearby) position. Allowing the mouse to point to, say, the 11th string would be practically impossible! Other tab strings will remain accessible to the mouse as they are now.

*) Fretted / non-fretted strings: just to make things clearer, the current MuseScore setup allows to specify which strings are fretted and which are open, regardless they are among the first 6 or not. So, my point 5) above means that, once a string has been specified as open, it will not accept any other fret but 0/a, not that bourdons as such will be limited to 0/a.



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In reply to by Miwarre

>1) French: can you confirm that for instance "////a" is not used in French notation or, alternatively, that switching to numbers as soon as at 4 is acceptable as main (and initially only) option?

Yes. And I don't know of any other option other than 4,5,6, etc. for lower courses in french tab.

>2) Italian: I know that Italian notation of bourdons is a mess; the point is exactly to select the option to start with, with the possible outcome that this will remain the only option for quite a while.
>What about for instance 0 Ø 9 X 11 etc.?
>3) Also on Italian notation, in all the example I have seen which use a 'ledger line', the line
>passes through the 0 of the bourdon, not below it; Can you confirm?

I just went through my collection of Italian tab facsimiles. I found one lute book containing the 8-course intabulation style, by Molinaro (attached). This illustrates the way of denoting the 8th course, with a ledger line below it. And you are right; the bourdon notes are shown with the line going through them, like all the notes in Italian tab. It. The example also shows how to indicate a fretted 7th course. I have not seen a fretted 8th course in Italian tab (I have seen them in French tab). That does not mean they don't exist, and they should probably be planned for. So I would propose two different styles: the 8-course model with the optional ledger line to denote the 8th course using 0 and 0 with a ledger line below it, and the 6 and 9-14 course model using 7, 8, 9, X, 11 (or ii or V), 12 (or i2), 13 (or i3), and 14 (or i4). Or we could combine the models into one, using 0 (with a line through it) for the 7th course, 1-9 with a line through them for the 7th course fretted (I've never seen it fretted for more than the 5th fret), and 8-14 (without a line through them) for the lower bourdons. 7 (without a line) would be the equivalent of 0 with a line through it. That way we could cover the bases and skip the ledger line, which has to be a pain, even though it might not be so historically accurate. I don't remember having seen more than one bourdon being played at a time in Italian tab, I have sometimes played both 7th and 8th courses together in French tab:

I would allow fretting on a, /a, //a, and ///a. There is no way to show fretting on courses 11-14, so I assume these are never fretted. Also, in Italian tab, I have never seen an example of courses below the 7th course being fretted, so I am not sure how this would be shown. Maybe a number with a line through it with and a ledger line underneath. I have also never seen more than one bourdon played at a time in Italian tab.

Got it, re: mouse entry. Sounds good.


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In reply to by sgerbode

1) French notation: OK; clean and (relatively) easy to implement.

2 - 3) Italian notation: if possible, I would like to avoid adding more settings and preferences to the tab config dialogue box, which is already very complex. For this reason and to simplify (as far as possible) the implementation, I would really love to find a 'catch-all' solution.

So, I am speculating about something along these lines:

7th: Ø (see it in vertical!)
8th: Ø/ (again see it in vertical!) if the 8th is defined as frettable in the instrument string data (see below), '8' (with no lines) if it is not
9th - on: numerals without lines.

Does it make sense?

Collateral notes:

About 'ledger lines': they are not a pain! they require to displace the duration symbol if present and takes space, but are rather simple to compute and to draw.
- - - - - - - -
Finally, about allowing fretting or not: I understand this may be not overly clear and your help may be useful to improve the documentation on this, but the programme is not inhibiting fretting in any way.

In the instrument string data (accessible from the staff properties dlg box), each instrument string can be defined as 'frettable' (default) or 'open'; if it is open, it cannot be fretted (any fret number on input will be converted to 0), otherwise it will accept any fret number (up to the instrument limit).

So, there is nothing to do in the code to "allow fretting on a, /a, //a, and ///a"; perhaps the user will have to remove the 'open' flag from the 9th and 10th course in the string data (IIRC, all courses after the 8th are open by default). Of course, when the tab style shows a course with just a simple number (French 4-7 or Italian 9 - 14), the fretting, if allowed, will not show through.

MANY THANKS for your support and your comments, I think we made (well, I made, thanks to you) some solid progress in the matter!


P.S.: Incidentally, I had the Intavolatura di liuto by S. Molinaro, also because it is one of the most important Renaissance composer of the town I live in (Genova; well, there is also Paganini, but he is not Renaissance!), but I failed to investigate it with due care!


Current status of French tab bass string notation for a 13-course lute (notes do not make any musical sense, they are there just to show the layout):


This is how note input looks while inputting when the target string is one of the frettable bass strings (I still have to figure out how to show the following bass strings as input target):


UPDATE: Bass strings in Italian tabs.

This is how bass strings look in Italian tabs (again the notes have no musical meaning: only there to show the layout!):

Note that the rhythm marks raise to make room for the extra row:

And this is what the user sees while inputting on the first 4 bass strings (7th to 10th, similarly for the following ones):

For the moment being, I have not implemented:

1) variable format for 8th course in Italian style (as 'Ø/' if frettable, as '8' if not frettable): currently, it is always shown as 'Ø/';

2) more than one row of bass indications.

If the whole seems a reasonable initial implementation, I will post the pull request to github soonish.


In reply to by Miwarre

Sorry to drop by so late - may I humbly ask how to enter those notes on the diapasson strings?
In my local build (git commit 57deb726537c5673c00234bdf77af39304303b44) I can't seem to move the cursor outside the six tablature lines shown, even so I changed the String Data of the staff properties to 13 strings.

Incidentally, while working on bass strings, I made another small change, which will possibly be helpful. So far, the 'blue input cursor' during TAB note entry was always at the same position relative to the current string and high enough to include both frets on strings (like in Italian notation) and above strings (like in French notation), which, at least to my eyes, occasionally left a margin of ambiguity about which string was the actual input target string.

With this change, the 'blue cursor' height is equal to the line distance and the rectangle is positioned around the string for frets on strings and between strings for frets above strings; I believe this makes clearer where a fret is going to be entered.

The two posts above implicitly show the change (the post with French examples shows the old implementation and the post with Italian examples shows the new one), but I add below a direct comparison of the two possible cursor positions:


Hi, regarding French tab I wanted to make some remarks (I play the baroque lute):
1. ////a and /////a are used indeed, but very seldom - I know it from Angelique mss and from one of the Rostock mss. I think to use 4 to 6 / 7 (14 course is also possible) is very good for the beginning.
2. I'm aware of some - also very seldom - mss and prints, where two bordouns are used at the same time (e.g. Rust violin & lute sonatas)
3. Sometimes, a little bit more often, bourdons also can be fretted up to the eleventh course, so e.g. ////b (and here you need the 4th slash!) is possible and used, for instance in the London Weiss ms. I'm not sure, if that is possible already ...

BTW - will these features soon be in the release versions?
I suspect, that I need to install the nightly version to try that, isn't it?

Best regards

In reply to by MLutz

In fact, this patch has been merged into the master code 4 days ago, so it is included in the nightly.

1) The max number of 'slashes' in French notation is a compromise; ideally, it should be configurable, but the TAB config dialogue box is already so crowded that I am not eager to add more parameters.

2) Yes, I know about multiple bourdons; as you say, they are very rare; so rare that my suggestion is to input one 'regular' bourdon and one 'faked' one, using some textual label. I do not expect multiple boudons will be supported any soon...

3) To fret eleven courses, you need very long fingers, I suspect! With the [String Data] button in the staff properties dialogue box, it is possible to add, remove, tune strings and mark them as fretted or not. So it is possible to set any string as fretted (or not). To be honest, I have no idea how this turns out in bass notation, though!

In reply to by Miwarre

I already tested it - working on a Linux system, I tried anyway the Windows version to avoid compiling it on my own and have the need to install qt5 before.
It works quite fine already, but when I print it, the lines and the time sign is missing ...
Looks quite interesting without the Tab lines.
And I had a crash when I tried to save the instruments.

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In reply to by MLutz

In order to help, it would be more useful to attach your score (Fuga d-moll, Weiss) rather than an image :)
How do you made the PDF export ? Via the MuseScore function (File -> Export -> pdf), or by a third-party virtual printer?
Finally, for the crash, what do you mean by "save the instruments"?
It would also be appropriate at this step to change of forum to not distort this thread, and to go, at first, here: https://musescore.org/en/forum/6

In reply to by cadiz1

Works fine here with this Fuga of the London Ms (Weiss).

I input eleven measures, and file and pdf are as expected (and no crash)
- File .mscz (Tab only, like you) : Weiss, Fuga d-moll Londres TAB.mscz
- Other presentation: File .mscz (Tab + standard staff) : Weiss, Fuga d-moll Londres.mscz
- Pdf file (via MuseScore function) : Weiss, Fuga d-moll Londres TAB.pdf

So, feel free to open a new thread on the support forum (as mentioned above) to explain what happens for you.

In reply to by Miwarre

Just for info (maybe repeating myself):

1. I have never seen any bourdon fretted beyond ///a, and that is very rare (in fact, I am not sure I have ever seen it). Fretting on a , /a, //a are more common, a >> /a, /a >> //a.
2. I have never seen the 11th course rendered as ////a. When there are more than 10 courses, they are usually rendered (in French tab) as:
a /a //a ///a, 4, 5, 6, 7
3. In Italian tab, they are sometimes rendered as:
7, 8, 9, X, ij, 12, 13, 14
Obviously, this does not permit any fretting on the bourdons.
4. In Italian tab with 7 or 8 courses, they are rendered as 0 (if fretted, then 1,2,3, etc.), with a ledger line to indicate the 8th course. I have never seen the 8th course fretted in this style.

In reply to by sgerbode

1. e.g. the Allemande of Sonata 36 by SLWeiss has ///b in some places (two times in the attached example)
2. Indeed I have seen a ////b once at least in the G fugue by Weiss in London (see attached snap, which is not good, but shows on beat 3 of m.2 the Cis (////b); and also ////a in some sources (e.g. D-ROu Ms. 54, see attachment). There are even some manuscripts of Angelique music, that also has /////a (which BTW doesn't mean, that it must be shown that way).
In some angelique ms the basses are rendered as: a a_ (with an underline) /a //a ///a ////a etc.

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