The Good and the Bad of Tab and Music Notation

For centuries the battle between the forces of tab and standard music notation have raged on, with many combatants on both sides fighting for their cause.

OK, perhaps a little dramatic. But, for those of you who have played guitar for a little while, you’ve probably come across the age old debate between the benefits of tab and traditional music notation. Or, more likely, you’re someone who has maybe dabbled in reading music, discovered tab and then never looked back and can happily play what ever song you feel like – at least most of the time. Good for you! 

But, have you ever truly thought about the pro’s and con’s of these two systems?

In this article, I’ll discuss:

  1. What I love about tab
  2. What I don’t love about tab
  3. What I love about music notation
  4. What I don’t love about music notation
  5. My story (super brief)

I mean, I know on the outset you might be thinking you don’t really care.

I’ll say at this point, if you can’t read tab, this article is not for you.

Here’s what I love about tab:

  1. Tab is super fast at telling you where to put your fingers.
  2. If you know the song already, it is often all you need.
  3. It can be explained and learned by anyone in about 5 mins.
  4. It can sometimes include rhythm elements to better communicate timing.
  5. It’s abundant. It’s everywhere, and often free.
  6. If it includes fingering it’s often helpful.
  7. If it includes techniques like markings for hammer on’s, vibrato, two hand tapping etc, that’s also very good.
  8. It doesn’t take much musical knowledge to start making some nice sounds.

Here’s what I don’t love about tab:

  1. It doesn’t encourage you to think about what notes you’re playing.
  2. Often internet tab has mistakes which can be frustrating.
  3. If you have not heard the song, it is impossible to play it from tab.
  4. It can give you a false sense of how good you can play.
  5. If it doesn’t include fingerings and technique markings, songs can be learned with poor finger choices and no articulation. In my mind this is a step backwards.
  6. It doesn’t engage the brain with music on a deeper level. For example, you’re less likely to think ‘oh, that was just an A minor arpeggio’ or ‘wow, that’s a clever way to play a Gmaj7’ or ‘I didn’t know the harmonic minor scale sounded so good played this way’.
  7. It can create an expectation that learning music should be this easy, and lowers the discipline of learning the deeper and richer things of music.

Having said all of this, tab does have its place! It is a great way to get into music quickly and find the joy of playing songs we know and love and feeling like we’re making awesome progress!

Moving on.

What I love about music notation:

  1. It has more information embedded in it. For example, pitch, duration and articulations, which means it can communicate enough information for you to play it and sound like the original song, even if you haven’t heard it before.
  2. It’s a brilliant tool for developing a rock solid understanding of the fret board, because you have assigned names to the frets which correspond to the music. You’re thinking in notes, not numbers!
  3. It enables you to play music written for other instruments because it’s universal across nearly all instruments.
  4. It gives you the freedom to play something multiple ways. For example you might see an E note on the bottom line of the staff and know that it could be played in at least 2 other locations.
  5. Theory is way easier to learn because it’s been developed around this system of notation, not tab.
  6. You will be a more useful guitarist. You won’t be asked to play for anything that requires you to read a musical score, so you’re less likely to be a session guitarist, play in a musical, teach a music class, be in a big band or orchestra. But if you can read, you’ll be sought after! And that can mean getting paid, and paid well.

What I don’t love about music notation:

  1. It takes longer to learn and sound “good” compared to tab.
  2. It is not as abundant as tab and often not free.
  3. It’s like a muscle, it needs to be used or your ability to read it proficiently diminishes.
  4. It might take longer to learn a song to begin with.
  5. You might be alone on this, other guitar mates might not have any idea how to do this nor see the value in it.

My story (super brief)

Until I was in year 12, I could not read music. I only read tab and most people thought I was brilliant.

In grade 12, I begun the journey of learning music notation, and found the more I learned, the more I realised how much I had been missing. My improvising, theory, fretboard awareness, sense of rhythm and appreciation for music and other instruments all went through the roof.

I begun composing and writing for other instruments like drums and violins and piano – it was awesome! It was like I could see everything, even if I didn’t understand it all, I knew it existed.

So, you may have surmised that I am in favour of reading music notation. Not because tab is bad – I owe a lot to tab and would never have developed such a passion for guitar without it, but from experience I can whole-heartedly say that reading music notation made me far better and way more versatile as a musician.

I’d love to know what you think about this. What benefits of Tab or Music notation can you think of?

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