Fiddlers Read Music Notation

Fiddlers Read Music Notation and Fiddle Tab

Do all fiddlers read music notation? No. Do all violinists read fiddle tab? No. Why not? Many fiddlers are on the way to reading music notation. But, violinists, the ones I’ve met, profess distain for fiddle tab. Maybe it’s ego, maybe it’s just laziness. They don’t want to learn it. Even when I tell them a six year old child can learn it in 5 minutes.


Music notation and fiddle tab, side by side
Music notation and fiddle tab, side by side


Everybody knows what music notation looks like. Let’s take a step forward and say what it is. Music notation is a system for representing definite pitch and definite rhythm. For any piece of music notation published, there are many different instruments that can play the notation, or singers that can sing it. It’s a definite language that borders on universal for music.

By comparison, what is tablature? It is a system for determining what actions to take with a particular instrument. It is far from a universal portrayal of musical sound. That would be music notation. Tab tells you what to do, not what the sound should be.

Read Music Notation and Fiddle Tab, too

Fiddle tab is intuitive and very easy to learn. Musical notation is neither intuitive nor easy to learn. When I have started out beginers to learn to play the violin or fiddle, and the resulting sound is the same at that stage, I use tab. Later, when the student is playing several tunes without struggle, I introduce music notation. 

I certainly have nothing against it. It is useful for learning new fiddle tunes when you know how to read it. But, learning it is a challenge. And what you need to learn is how to instantly translate the little dot on the staff to an action you take with your fiddle. There is no time, when you are sight reading a music notation version of a fiddle tune, to think of whether the dot is an E or an F. You need to bypass that stage and go right to the finger and string you want.

Learn to Play by Tab, then Learn Music Notation

For a long time I relied on Alan Kaufman’s Beginning Old Time Fiddle. It has both tablature and music notation together, tab on top and music notes underneath. It is a fairly easy effort to play a tune in tab and learn it. Then try translating the dots based on your knowledge of the tune and having the facility of looking just above the notation for the tab.

Some years passed with this system and, because I had several children as students whose parents wanted them to follow a music notation path, I changed things up. I wrote out all the Suzuki pieces from Volume One in tab. Then, I could start the students as painlessly as possible and go to the music notation later. I had them place the tab chart on the stand next to the notation chart in the book. Play the tab, play the notes. Just as you see in the photo above.

This is following a system of direct learning. Sometimes this works, sometimes not. Lately I have been showing the logical relationship of the notes on the staff. I point out how a particular note that the student just played is lower than the next note in spatial relationship, and how that parallels the sound relationship of the notes. Somehow I say it more simply than that. I would quote myself but hesitate for fear it will sound shallow and silly.

This relationship between notes spatially and the sound relationships is as close to intuitive as you are going to get with music notation. Not all that close, is it? With tab there is a one to one analog between the tab staff and the neck of the violin. very little translation is required.

Decrypting Music Notation is Direct in the Long Run

Decoding the notes to names of notes, F#, G, A–is what is usually taught first in traditional pedagogy. But, musicians don’t do that translation. A flute player can tell you the name of any note played. But when they are playing they translate the appearance of the music notation directly to physical actions. There is no time for anything more cumbersome.

It’s a learned skill that takes time. Pages and pages of music have to be gone through before a musician gets good at this. Whereas, playing what you want to hear is another skill and another learning curve. It’s surprising how few students are good at both. And few musicians are good at both, for that matter. Being bound to printed music notation curtains off a whole world of music from the read only musician.

Music theory, unlike note reading. can be taught by ear and by doing. It all starts with the scale and the numbers of the steps  in the scale. The famous Nashville Number System is based on this. One of the members of my string band is fluent in this and we talk to each other in numbers for chords. It’s clean and handy.

Bottom line: there are three ways to know music. Know how to read and decode printed music notation–that’s sight. Be able to play the sounds you want to hear–that’s ear. Having the ability to do what you want to do on your instrument–that’s doing. Using visual, auditory and kinesthetic abilities all at the same time–that’s mastery.

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