Recensiones bibliográficas

Vindication of tablature. On a paper by John Griffiths

Isabel Rei Samartim
jueves, 13 de enero de 2022
Manuscrito barroco do Fundo Casto Sampedro © by Arquivo do Museu da Ponte Vedra Manuscrito barroco do Fundo Casto Sampedro © by Arquivo do Museu da Ponte Vedra

Intellectual honesty and the will for justice are elements that can go together in a single person. Life can lead us to develop the most varied activities, but these always end up defining and characterising us through those fundamental elements. I have always felt the claiming of Galician guitar as a musical and social duty, which implied a revision of the official musicology and supposed settling the scores with the Spanish nationalist historiography.

John Griffiths. © by Griffiths. © by

On the same note, although from another perspective, the excellent paper by the musicologist John Griffiths (Melbourne, Australia, b. 1952) developed last December, entitled Turning the tables: reassessing tablature, about the vindication of the tablature as a fundamental element of European musical evolution, and an essential tool to understand the formation of European musicians.

Griffiths announces in this lecture a future paper to be published in August this year, 2022, which we are happily awaiting. The author condemns the falsehood of the tablature being a "peripheral" and unimportant notation in Western music, regrets the decline of studies on musical paleography, and speaks out clearly against the kind of musicology that keeps on seeing music history as a succession of styles, works and authors in alphabetical order, rather than treating it as a part of the social history of peoples, human behaviour and musical practice.

I loved that the author is aware that rethinking the significance of tablature in the European historical framework requires "some adjustments of historiographical values”, and that 

this narrative ignores many other dimensions, distorts other realities, and has been detrimental to tablature.

Pieza enlazada

That is what I wanted to say to musicology in general, and to Spanish musicology in particular, in my thesis The guitar in Galicia (USC, 2020). The narrative of the "vihuela" and the "guitarra española" has been harmful to the guitar evolution in Galicia, especially during the last century, being the guitar an instrument of usual Galician use since at least the 12th century; and it has also damaged international musicology by hiding the role of Portugal in the historical evolution of the guitar for a very long time.

Critical thinking

I absolutely agree with Griffiths' definition of "plurilingual" musicians; that is, those who know and use several methods of musical notation. And so, I share the hypothesis that this was the norm in Europe between the 15th and 18th centuries —and even before and after those centuries— because different notation methods allowed for different musical uses; and this happened in the past and also during the 20th century, up until today.

Griffiths' bid to reinvent the History of Western Music is rigurous. He looks up the primary sources, develops a critical thinking and questions the established narrative. The author perfectly captures the incongruities and wonders why one type of tablature is called "Italian" since it was not used only in Italy. The same happens with the "French" tablature which was used in England. We agree that if the use of tablatures was common, the names should be too.

I enjoyed it when he explained that Music History has decided that there were no chords in medieval music. For a guitarist, the question is instantaneous: how on Earth would harmonic instruments like guitars develop then, since we have knowledge of their use since before the Middle Ages?

(Linguistic) Issues to be solved

In my thesis I tried to explain some organological and linguistical issues of European fingered chordophones. I tried to distinguish determinant and non-determinant elements for the elaboration of a new classification, improving Hornbostel and Sachs', and explained my proposal. I also studied the words used to name these various instruments (fingered chordophones) in different European languages, and the variants of those words across time, especially between the 12th and 19th centuries. As it was a work about the Galician guitar, I also analysed the Spanish nationalist narrative, and proposed a democratic reading of texts and contexts.

It is for this very reason that I would like to warn John Griffiths about some details that, perhaps, are not as easily perceived from the English-speaking world. Actually, one of the elements that increases confusion in musical analysis in Europe is the uses and characteristics of each language, which creates false friends and contaminates meanings; and so, they are leveraged by opportunists to feed false arguments, and after decades of use they need to be untangled with great patience.

As we know, the word tábua (table) in Galician-Portuguese today (and in the rest of the Romance languages) comes from the Latin tabula, and names a thin object with a wide and smooth surface, which can be rectangular, and has been used in various ways. One such way, prior to the invention of paper, was to write signs, letters, numbers or any other form of human language.

Guitarra hitita, ano 3300 a. d. E. © by hitita, ano 3300 a. d. E. © by

In the Europe of Mycenaean times, as well as in ancient Mesopotamia, the Hittite empire and many other cultures and peoples, writing on clay tablets was common. Let's pretend that the oldest representation of a guitar is from Hittite times. In ancient European times it was habitual to write on boards of clay, wood and parchment later on. Hence, in the Bible, God's laws were written on tables of stone, which is an allegory since stone is more durable than other materials. The authors of the Christian holy book were sending the message that God's laws had to be much more primary, durable and therefore true than any other laws written on clay, wood or parchment.

Raimundo de Miguel registered the word tabula,-æ with various meanings in his indispensable etymological Latin dictionary published in 1881, one of them being that of 'painting', taken from Seneca. During the process of emergence of new European languages, centuries after the fall of the Roman Empire, and their coexistence with the decreasing use of Latin, the word tabula also began to be used with the meaning of 'score'. This is not strange, because the score written music is a drawing or painting made on a thin, smooth surface, like a board (tabula).

Capa das Novaæ Tabulaæ Musicæ (1582) de Giulo Cesare Barbetta. © by Imslp.Capa das Novaæ Tabulaæ Musicæ (1582) de Giulo Cesare Barbetta. © by Imslp.

This usage can be seen in the book of the paduan lutenist Giulio Cesare Barbetta (1582) where the title Novæ Tabulæ Musicæ, presented in Latin, can be translated as new pieces of written music: that is, new scores. In the same book, the edition informations are in German, because it was published in Strasbourg, and the piece’s titles are in Italian. The word tavola, in the languages of the Italian peninsula, retain the meaning of tabula in Latin. Hence Frescobaldi, in 1615, published in Roman Italian the Toccate e partite d'intavolatura di cimbalo, meaning pieces of written music: scores.

Languages evolve and words take on new meanings. For example, in Bermudian times the word Spain was a coronym (toponym) meaning 'Hispanic peninsula', today called Iberian. There was no reference in Castilian to a political entity called Reino de España (Kingdom of Spain). Only in the nineteenth century, well into the second half, did the word Espanha/España/Espanya (Spain) acquire the meaning of the political entity that can be identified with the current Kingdom and exclude the other political entities of the peninsula, such as the Republic of Portugal, the United Kingdom, or the Principality of Andorra. Before the 19th century, historical texts were dominated by the geographical meaning, indicating Spain as the territory of the Iberian peninsula, just as Italy was the name of the territory of the Italian peninsula. That is why the expression "Spanish guitar" (chitarra spagnuola, guitarra española) present in many documents of the 17th and 18th centuries refers to music and musicians from the Iberian peninsula, with all its diverse nations, and not the still non-existent Kingdom of Spain.

In the same way, today the word tablature means, without detracting from the History of Music, the alphanumeric technique of musical notation, which has also been called cifra when referred to numerical tablature; and this is how it appears in all current dictionaries. And all of this is not opposed to the vindication of tablature as a fundamental element of European music.

Origin of tablature

Also in the introduction of my thesis, I talk about the general question of origin and provenance, concepts that some Musicologies tend to confuse. In my research looking for information about the words viola and guitarra, I admired the informed study by the Italian professor Ella B. Nagy carried out at the University of Padua. Among some valuable information, the author analyses Arabic sources from the 9th-10th centuries, in which musicians indicated musical notes through letters and numbers, a method linked to the study of the al ud and other Arabic chordophones (Nagy, 2017, pp. 188-189):

L'uso di lettere o di numeri per indicare le note musicali sulla tastiera degli strumenti a pizzico e documentato dal IX secolo presso gli arabi. Farmer (1930) dedica alcune pagine alle influenze della notazione alfabetica degli arabi sulla notazione europea, discutendo le lettere con cui gli arabi indicavano le posizioni delle note sul liuto (üd). Alcuni eruditi del X secolo applicavano i simboli derivati dall'alfabeto arabo per indicare le note musicali della scala diatonica ('Ali ibn Yahya, m. 912, Al-Farabi, m. 950) o della scala cromatica (Al-Kindi, m. 866) sul liuto. Le lettere impiegate non erano sempre le stesse, riferendosi sempre alle note relative. La prassi è documentata anche presso gli arabi di Spagna e di Nord-Africa.

Estela funerária de Lutátia Lupata, Lusitânia, século II da nossa era. © by Dominio Público / Ceres.Estela funerária de Lutátia Lupata, Lusitânia, século II da nossa era. © by Dominio Público / Ceres.

Today we know the beautiful burial stele of the girl Lutatia Lupata, from the 2nd century CE, with an epigraphy and a marble portrait of the young Lusitanian playing a strummed cordophone. Given this evidence of the use of fingered string instruments in the style of lutes and guitars in the Iberian peninsula, long before the arrival of the Arabs, it would be logical to think that the Arabs would not have invented the instrument, nor the notation, but would have rather collected, reinterpreted and even reinvented elements from ancient cultures. Let us think of the example of the Textus Receptus, the Bible written in Greek that served as a reading and model for the translation of the New Testament into Arabic. It is well known that the Arab intellectuals of the Middle Ages knew Greek and read the ancient philosophers in their original language. Arab culture was really cultured, informed and did not let the valuable part of neighbouring cultures be forgotten.

Returning to professor Nagy, she also refers to another of the confusions that populate modern Musicology: the myths. In this way, one of these ancient myths said that the inventor of tablature would be an Arab named Fulan (a sort of John Doe) in the Kingdom of Granada (idem):

una fonte coeva all'introduzione dell'intavolatura ne attribuisce l'invenzione a un moro di Granada. Il manoscritto - oggi perduto - si intitolava Ars de pulsatione lambuti et aliorom similium instrumentorum, inventa a Fulan mauro regni Granatae, e si trovava in un monastero cappuccino di Girona. Il testo e datato al 1496 ma l'evento raccontato dev'essere accaduto prima. Il moro Fulan (jitliin in arabo significa 'persona anonima') era apprezzato per il suo talento di suonare piu strumenti a pizzico: «lambutum, cytharam, violam et his similia instrumenta» ('liuto, chitarra, viola e strumenti simili'), e per non sbagliare i semitoni decise di indicare la corda vuota con Alif, e ciascun semitono seguendo le lettere dell'alfabeto.

It is quite logical that alfanumeric tablature is an effective method of communicating strummed music since it describes a topographical map of the fingerboard, indicating the notes that should be played. Although the notation of the rhythm in tablature can cause serious interpretation problems, the advantage of reaching many more people with less effort is undeniable. That is why I also think that tablature, apart from its name which takes us back to Antiquity, may also be much more ancient than we think.

Therefore, to place the peak of tablature use between the 15th and 18th centuries is to greatly reduce the time span of its use, which arised no one knows when, continued throughout the nineteenth century and exploded in the twentieth century. Tablature is now, as Griffiths implies, one of the most widely used means of musical communication across the planet, very much on top of modern musical notation. And fingered chordophones, especially the guitar family, seem to be one of the most universal of all Indo-European instruments today.

This reminds me of another of Griffiths’ questions: why does the academic world not know how tablature works, when the world's great mass of amateur musicians can decipher any song on the guitar? It's really quite astonishing.

In conclusion

I immensely celebrate the alternative voices in the world of Musicology. Critical thinking is what improves Humanity in any of the areas of knowledge. But, as a friend says, critical thinking brings some problems and so, not everyone exercises it: supporters of orthodox thinking get angry at you. There is a responsibility to show that the official view does not explain things well; you need the intelligence to see what does not work and to build alternatives. Finally, you need to demonstrate that these alternatives are better for knowledge, emancipation and freedom.

This is the field we have worked on up to now and will continue to work on. I know that the relevance of tablature in the History of Western Music, like that of the Galician guitar, are elements of critical thinking and of daily musical practice that will serve to improve music studies in all its aspects and, with them, social and historical justice, coexistence and peace among the diverse European peoples.


Barbetta de Padua (1582). Novæ Tabulæ Musicæ Testvdinariæ Hexachordæ et HeptachordæEstrasburgo: Bernhard Jobin.
Griffiths, J. (2021) Turning the tables: reassessing tablature. Paper read at the 2021 Annual Conference of the Musicological Society of Australia (9 Dec. 2021).
Nagy, E. B. (2017). Strumenti musicali a pizzico nel tardo medioevo (Secoli XII-XV). Itália: Università degli Studi di Padova.
Rei-Samartim, I. (2020). A guitarra na Galiza. Tese de doutoramento. Universidade de Santiago de Compostela.
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