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How to Read Piano Tabs

reading music

Piano tablature notation is designed for simple music, and it’s easy to learn.

Piano tabs are written primarily using letters and numbers. Letters designate the keys to play (as opposed to the actual notes), while the numbers indicate beats as well as the octave.

Middle C is in the fourth octave of a full-sized piano with 88 keys (i.e., it’s the fourth C going up the keyboard), so middle C is C4 in piano tablature notation. (The three keys below C at the very bottom of the piano keyboard are in octave 0 for the purpose of piano tabs.)

Let’s take Amazing Grace as an example. Here is the melody in standard notation:

Next, let’s look at the melody in simplified piano tab notation, together with traditional notation:

Here, R means to use the right hand, and the numbers 5 and 4 to the left indicate the octave. Dashes may mean to hold the key down or they may indicate the smallest rhythmic units. (This alone makes piano tabs inaccurate, though there are other fatal inaccuracies as you’ll soon discover.) Finally, > means to hold a key down.

Lowercase letters indicate the white keys, while capitals indicate the black keys in the form of sharps (C = C-sharp; D = D-sharp; etc.). The only black key in this example is B-flat, yet in piano tab notation it is written as A, indicating A-sharp. However, B-flat is not A-sharp! They may be played by the same key on the piano, but they are different notes and have very different functions. Not distinguishing between enharmonic notes (notes played by the same piano key: C-sharp and D-flat, D-sharp and E-flat, E-sharp and F, etc.) is perhaps piano tablature’s greatest flaw.

It’s possible to eliminate some of the confusing dashes by indicating the rhythm on a separate line:

In this version, the rhythm is indicated on the bottom line, in the form of beats 1, 2 and 3. The smallest rhythmic unit per measure is used: here, the smallest rhythmic value is an eighth note, but it only appears in two measures. Thus, the other measures are divided into quarter notes, while the measures containing eighth notes are divided into eighth notes.

As you can see, standard musical notation is not only more accurate, it may well be easier to read!

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