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Sheet Music vs. Tablature - Which Is Better?

Updated: Jun 13, 2022

There are a few different methods of reading music that have existed since the birth of written song, most notably sheet music and tablature. Let's take a closer look at these two notation styles, and see if there's one you might want to lean toward if you are learning to read music.

Sheet Music, otherwise known as "standard notation", consists of a series of notes organized on a staff, and includes a clef, key signature, and time signature. It can be as simple as a scale, or as complicated as a full score listing out several instrumental parts, including articulation, dynamic markings, and tempo instruction (often used by orchestra conductors). This notation style is the universal standard of reading music, and can be used by the vast majority of instruments, regardless of skill level of the person playing the instrument.

Tablature is most commonly used with beginner level guitar students. It does not have a staff or key signature, but rather a depiction of strings with finger numbers instead of note symbols placed accordingly on the designated string.

Here is an example of both notation styles:

So, what are the benefits and possible drawbacks of each?

Well, as mentioned above, sheet music is the universal standard, and is the only method used by professional musicians. Speaking as a violinist who was classically trained, I did not even know tablature existed as a form of reading music when I was learning. It was simply not taught. Sheet music also conveniently provides you with all of the information you will need to read a piece of music you've never seen before, right there at the beginning of the staff. It also allows you to easily play and communicate with other musicians, using a universal language. Notice in the example above how the top line can be read by violin, guitar, trumpet, and any other treble clef instruments, while the bottom line is limited to guitar only, as it depicts the guitar strings and finger numbers. One drawback of sheet music, however, is it does require more time and practice to learn each of the note symbols, note values, key signatures, time signatures, and other musical symbols and terminology that can be found within a piece of written music.

Tablature is incredibly simple and straight forward, which is why many self-taught beginners enjoy it. It requires little to no knowledge about the staff, keys, note names, or even string names in order to follow, and this time-saving aspect can be very appealing to some. This same benefit can also be a drawback, however, in that you could be using tablature for years without ever really knowing the names of the notes you are playing, the key, or anything else about the music. This also means that you will never be able to truly dive into or study a piece of music the way it was intended by the composer, as it is missing several essential components in favor of ease. The same could be said for knowing your instrument; you will have a surface-level understanding of what you are playing and how you are playing it, which can ultimately hinder your progress.

It's like learning math and starting with counting to ten, then basic addition and subtraction, then algebra... you wouldn't skip to geometry or calculus without first learning to count to ten, right? It's the same with music. We start with basic concepts upon which we can build later. Students who start by learning tablature typically stick with tablature long-term, as it can be difficult and more confusing mentally to go from thinking of lines on a page as "strings", to viewing them as a staff. Additionally, if you are used to thinking in terms of finger numbers, it is incredibly difficult to switch to note names. Although I started out by reading sheet music, I had a bad habit when I was young of associating notes and pitches with finger numbers, which came back to bite me when I joined a youth symphony in middle school, and had to be able to sight read music quickly. My point is, if you start with sheet music, you won't have to do any unlearning like you would if you were attempting to switch from tablature to sheet music. So, while tablature may save you time in the beginning, all that unlearning will likely prove to be more of a headache in the end if you plan to advance in any capacity with your instrument.

So, as we've learned, while both tablature and sheet music have benefits, ultimately sheet music is the way to go if you want to:

1. Learn music as a whole and your instrument to the best of your ability.

2. Effectively play and communicate with other musicians.

3. Develop a solid foundation on which to build more complex music theory principles.

When you learn sheet music, you are setting yourself up for success in all aspects of learning music. By learning the basics - note names, the staff, note values, timing - you are creating a solid foundation for more complex concepts such as chords, melody and harmony, and other beneficial theory that can be built into your learning and playing of your own instrument. If you are willing to invest a bit more time up front to learn the musical alphabet and some basic terminology related to your instrument, you will go far, and you will begin to establish the foundation of music learning.

So, what do you think? Are you team tab, or team sheet music? Feel free to leave a comment sharing your thoughts!

Speaking of sheet music... The Tune Project Sheet Music Library is having a Spring SALE, and you can get $10 off your purchase by using the code "SPRING10", now through June 21, 2022! Go get yourself a discount!

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