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Sage Wisdom

"Good improvisation communicates harmonic progression melodically. Effective melodies manipulate harmonic content through the use of guide tones and preparatory gravity notes, masterfully woven in systematic tension, release, and transparent harmonic definition."

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November 15, 2007 | Sketching Music (Notation vs. Tablature)

You're planning a road trip from Baltimore, MD to Omaha, NE. You jump on to and type the two cities and you're given two forms of instructions; one a graphic map, the other, a list of directions and turns. Turn left on I-395 S, take the exit on I-95 S toward Washington, I70 west toward Pennsylvania, etc. or a big picture of half the USA with a bold purple line and sketchy destination/reference cities along the way.

Both communicate the same thing but offer differing advantages. A laundry list of turns is perhaps more accurate, but the graphic elements of a map give you a bigger perspective of the journey. Either runs the risk of shifting contexts, road construction detours, and none offers the full depth of scenery and changing traffic congestion. To fully capture the trip, you'd need a full 20 hour video, but then that would be only one version of how to get from A to B.

Music notation is like this. We sometimes forget when we're reading music that the ink is merely a sketch of the composer's intent. Devoid of context, historical practices, period performance nuances, though we are given graphic and specific details about the notes, there is still much missing for the uninformed musician. Tempos, inflections, swing vs. straight, articulations, all are minutiae that render a performance accurately.

Some argue over the value of sight-reading ability. We'd state unequivocally, the skill to read centuries of literature is of inescapable value to enjoy a wide variety of music, and acccessed immediately. Nothing against the "ear musician" but you are limited to only what you hear, and not volumes of songs and compositions through the ages.

Of course, we always have to remember that written out music is always subjective to elements that aren't easily graphed. Just like the trip from Baltimore, when you get to St. Louis on I-70, there's a cool stretch of I70 that goes over the Mississippi River and 1/4 mile by the Arch; that is if you chose I-70, instead of Google's recommended I-80. The point being there are contexts you'll want to gain by listening to other performers knowledgeable about a style, as these will not always reach the printed page.

Reading a Fake Book of jazz charts is enormously pleasurable. The notes are there, but you can take your own musical experiences, and those of other recorded artists and create your own version(s) of songs. Just like reading a map, you can sidetrack or find other musical elements that remain consistent with the genre, but offer a fresh and personal musical experience.

Tablature is great for learning chords, maybe for difficult fingering passages that are not intuitively accessed. It's great for instruction, but lousy for being musical. Robbed of the elements of rhythm and spacing, one can't immediately access the songwriter's intent. If you are hooked on TAB, you can open up a huge frontier by developing sight-reading skills.

On topic, read JazzMando review of Debora Chen's, Standard Notation for the Tab-Addicted Mandolinist, A concise course for the trad mandolinist breaking into untabbed territory.

Posted by Ted at November 15, 2007 11:02 AM

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