Pardon my use of a word that more often than not evokes imagery of lolcats, CATS, keyboard cat, longcat, and various other forms of cat, but a common “meme” in guitar education is teh evulz of tablature. Guitar and bass tab, apparently, is sleeping with your girlfriend, stealing food from the soup kitchen, eating all of your chips so that you have to buy more to make nachos (thankfully it missed that cheddar cheese you stuffed in the back of the fridge), making fun of you when you say you really liked “Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind,” and routinely shows up reeking of horrifically cheap whiskey that one weekend a month he has custody of the kids. Tab really is just that much of a ****. Standard notation is, however, way cooler of a guy, and would never steal your girlfriend, ever, and always makes sure to tip 20 percent.

And it’s all true, but of course for none of the reasons that are actually given. The actual reason why tablature is the inferior form of musical notation is actually more interesting than generic dictates from people on the internet claiming to know the right and proper way to learn music. Yes, you’ll here tired arguments about how tab doesn’t notate rhythm (except, of course, when it does notate rhythm) and how all other instruments only use standard notation (except of course, when they don’t like some lute, organ, harmonica music). But there’s an actual reason why standard notation is better, and it directly relates to how the human brain works and processes information.

It’s called chunking, and it’s the process by which the human brain can process a large amount of material at once by recognizing patterns of smaller components as individual units. Let’s do an experiment. Below are two statements, one written with letters of the alphabet, one written with digits. Both have the exact same number of characters. Study both of these for about 15 seconds, then look away, and write down what you remember from each one.

Hello. My name is Adam, and I’d like to perform a piece of music for you today. It is pretty freakin’ awesome.

10567. 49 2349 45 1034, 245 2’6 1852 64 1865177 7 52001 48 86124 147 411 21332. 12 07 856447 4651244′ 15885643.

A couple things should be obvious. One, 15 seconds was more than enough time to fully understand the first statement – really, 3 seconds is plenty. There are 110 separate characters in that statement, and the human brain not only can instantly understand, memorize and replicate all 110 of them within half the time it takes to watch dramatic chipmunk, but also very easily can understand the syntax and larger semantic and meaning that the 110 characters add up. The second one? Ha, good luck. You have 16 less characters to deal with (26 letters in the alphabet, 10 numerals), and you’d be lucky if you remembered the first three numbers after 15 seconds. And what they mean? Good luck, you tell me.

The parallel, I think, should be obvious here. The human brain understands words as indivisible units – no matter how slow you read, nobody processes a word letter by letter. You recognize the visual shape of a word and all of its component letters, and process it as that shape. Speed readers are able to process groups of words at once or even entire sentences or paragraphs (or pages!) This is how a trained musician reads a piece of music. They aren’t caught up in recognizing or understanding individual notes, rather, they’re processing the visual shape of the notes on the page and pairing that with muscle memory that has already been hardwired to understand what that shape means and how to play it on their instrument. This all happens in real time with performed music – not trying to pick out notes slowly in your bedroom as you’re learning a song.

The question is, which system is best for parsing visual units of music into recognizable chunks of musical information? Now, granted, there may be some people out there who have attuned their brains to chunk tab, I don’t know, I can’t really say. The fact of the matter is, however, that because standard notation has become the, well, standard notation, there are virtually no situations where one would genuinely need to “chunk” tablature in order to understand and sight read within real time. I very much doubt that anybody has developed the ability to read tab anywhere near the level that professionals do with tab simply because there is no need to – nobody writes in tab at the professional sight reading level. More importantly, though, I believe that the entire idea behind tab – showing how to recreate a sound versus describing the sound itself – is one that would make chunking difficult. Instantly recognizing the shape of the voice leading of four to five chords in four part harmony at an instant is routine, but it’s difficult to say if it would be possible to chunk the same on tab.

So yes, tab is evil. But for the most part, if you’re just somebody that wants to learn songs in their bedroom and rock out, tab is more than fine – it does the job of conveying musical information. If you ever want to get serious, though, tab simply doesn’t have the same ability as standard notation to chunk.

…who else thinks that “chunk” is an odd term? I didn’t make the jargon up – it’s a technical term, I swear.


12 Responses to “Tab”

  1. 1 jack nurling August 9, 2010 at 5:49 am

    Excellent point, Adam.

    When I first had to actually work with TAB I was revolted. The general lack of standard notation coupled with the fact that I needed to ‘use’ TAB to help learn a piece for an upcoming performance was the only reason I ‘went there’ in the first place.

    I have nearly lost the ability to read standard notation. I am changing that right now. This is simply because I rarely see standard notation. There is a lack of it in general on the web.

    Would it perhaps be a worthy goal to help re-introduce it by somehow causing more of it to exist? There are some issues.

    For instance, I read with interest your commentary on the b-flat project. Could such an undertaking be derailed by rights considerations? Probably. I need to think further on this…


  2. 2 jack nurling August 9, 2010 at 5:50 am

    I forgot to indicate that I wish to be notified via email of follow-up comments…

  3. 3 Michael Campbell August 9, 2010 at 3:29 pm

    Great post and I agree 100%. I have to wonder though, not being a tab-reader, would it not be possible to train oneself to read tab in chunks too? Particularly the rhythmic notational kind that is grouped into (musically) readable pieces. I don’t know that I’ve ever heard of anyone doing this, but I suspect it is possible.

    • 4 jack nurling August 9, 2010 at 5:03 pm


      I seriously doubt it. Recall from the above:

      “…Below are two statements, one written with letters of the alphabet, one written with digits. Both have the exact same number of characters. Study both of these for about 15 seconds, then look away, and write down what you remember from each one.

      Hello. My name is Adam, and I’d like to perform a piece of music for you today. It is pretty freakin’ awesome.

      10567. 49 2349 45 1034, 245 2’6 1852 64 1865177 7 52001 48 86124 147 411 21332. 12 07 856447 4651244′ 15885643.

      A couple things should be obvious…”

      Savants exist. I could imagine an attempt, however there is such a lack of information encased in TAB.

      Possibly a new sort of TAB notation which could rely upon information such as the approach mentioned in “The Advancing Guitarist,” by Mick Goodrick and single-string technique/knowledge. Such an endeavor would be necessarily limited to a specific tuning on a specific instrument, such as bass, EADG, for instance. Place standard half notes, quarter notes, dotted notes, tied notes, etc. on the diagram for the strings and frets. Still seems needlessly cumbersome.


  4. 5 Ryan August 9, 2010 at 4:18 pm

    “showing how to recreate a sound versus describing the sound itself”

    This is an insightful way of defining tab and standard notation.
    One can play music written in standard notation on any instrument, i.e. a bass player can read tuba music (especially if it’s in concert C pitch)

    On the other hand, tab limits the written music to one instrument or class of instruments; it has to be translated otherwise. A tuba player can’t read bass tabs – unless he or she knows the pitches on a bass fretboard.

  5. 6 jack nurling August 9, 2010 at 5:21 pm

    What Ryan said.

    Being fluent in English, I am consternated by the proliferation of signs which depict the activity rather than say it in words.

    A humorous example is the iconic depiction of a dog defecating, back curled, rear legs bent, tail straight up, and neat round droppings falling to the ground, often with a red circle and diagonal forward-slash to indicate prohibition of the depicted activity. Sometimes, rather than the red prohibition indicator, a depiction of a shovel and bag plus a stick-person indicate “clean-up after.”

    I often work with a guitarist who when he indicates what the cords will be (on stage) he says, using military phonetic alphabetic shorthand, “Charlie, Alpha-minor, Foxtrot, George.”

    That is a needless level of abstraction for me. I am much better off with “C Aminor, F and G.” Usually, I am much better off just being able to see his left hand.


  6. 8 Emma August 9, 2010 at 11:55 pm

    1.) I enjoy your list of things that makes something (or someone) an asshole. Especially making fun of liking Eternal Sunshine.

    2.) Having had all my musical training (piano, voice, theory) using standard notation, when I taught myself the guitar, I used tab. I am barely able to (very slowly) make my way through standard musical notation on the guitar. But then again, I’m not a guitarist. I’m a pianist and singer.

    3.) I have less than insightful things to say and yet I still post comments. Sorry?

    • 9 Ryan August 10, 2010 at 1:21 pm

      Emma, when I learned guitar I used tab as well, maybe because it’s so widespread on the internet – you can find lots of songs tabbed out.

      But now that I play bass, I read mostly lead sheets with chord names (e.g. Am7 D7 Gmaj7). It’s been a long time since I’ve read tab for bass.

  7. 10 jack nurling August 10, 2010 at 10:29 pm


    In the novel, “1984,” by George Orwell, there is a passage, quoted as follows:

    “…For Hate Week. You know — the house-by-house fund. I’m treasurer for our block. We’re making an all-out effort — going to put on a tremendous show. I tell you, it won’t be my fault if old Victory Mansions doesn’t have the biggest outfit of flags in the whole street. Two dollars you promised me.”

    Winston found and handed over two creased and filthy notes, which Parsons entered in a small notebook, in the neat handwriting of the illiterate.

    “By the way, old boy,” he said, “I hear that little beggar of mine let fly at you with his catapult yesterday. I gave him a good dressing-down for it. In fact I told him I’d take the catapult away if he does it again.”

    “I think he was a little upset at not going to the execution,” said Winston…

    Permit me to detract from the quote above, “in the the neat handwriting of the illiterate.” … :

    I worked as a mercenary ‘contract’ engineer at one particular company for many years. The head of the department within which I worked at this particular company was illiterate. He could barely read, could not write cursive, and relied upon a computer and all of the help available with the tools generally found upon a stand-alone word-processing-enabled computer. I did not know this initially.

    His handwriting was always very, very neat and almost seemed as if printed.

    He did not appear to be illiterate. He spoke very well. He was charismatic. He was brilliant. He was competent. He had ‘personality’ and he was department head. He had a master’s level degree in the field. He was, however, illiterate.

    While working in that company as contract employee on and off for nearly a decade, the company expanded greatly. When first I was ‘hired,’ there were far less than 100 employees. When I was finally ‘let go,’ there were far more than 2,000.

    Along this path I traversed, there were many ‘power plays’ and board meetings and memos and even more memos and general ‘expansion-related’ issues and memos which arose increasingly more frequently and ultimately resulted in ‘my’ engineering department, within which I had so comfortably worked for so many years, being subsumed by an ambitious ‘other department’ head.

    During this course of events, I developed a much closer and more personal relationship with the head engineer of the initial department. I remember very clearly the day he presented me with an inter-departmental memo and asked me, “What does this say?” I explained to him its meaning in meta-context.

    He replied, “Yes, but what does it actually SAY?”

    I was startled. “Didn’t you read it?” I asked.

    “Well…,” he said.

    We hemmed and hawed, and ultimately, he said, “Meet me tonight at …”

    Much later that night, at … , over many beers, he confessed to me that he was ‘illiterate.’

    His story was a heart-rending tale that was astounding to me. He spoke to me frankly of the tricks and machinations that allowed him to pretend to be literate, while remaining actually illiterate.

    Many of these tricks bordered on genius.

    Finally, I asked him, “So, how did you ever manage to get your degrees?”

    He said, “Next time you go to campus, look at that big building right at to the left of the middle of the student center. Read the bronze plaque. It bears my family name and the name of my father.”

    The tales he told me about how he ingeniously disguised the fact that he was illiterate were marvelous. I knew that he was functionally competent from previous years of working with him. How could he actually be illiterate?

    One mystery in life!

    I propose that TAB is akin to “The neat handwriting of the illiterate” and that some may escape.



  1. 1 Adam Neely Trackback on August 20, 2010 at 5:56 am

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