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Reading Mandolin Notation

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I've made at least several attempts at learning to read notation. But this time I mean business...yah, I'm serious this time! Have any of you found a method to make it easier, that you'd care to share?

Bruce Teschner

I got a copy of the fiddler's fakebook, and started with the tunes I already knew - that way you have a pretty good idea of how they already go, which makes reading them much easier. Then I progressed to tunes I didn't know, but wanted to learn. Jazz fakebooks are also good for this.

I've also started buying violin books instead of mando books. For instance, a while back, I decided to buy a mandolin scale book to start hitting my scales really hard. Instead of buying the mando book, I bought a violin scales book - no tab! I've also been using several violin method books that have helped, and made me a much better player. So, if you have an option of a mando book vs a similar book for violin/fiddle, go for the fiddle book.

I also started playing some classical mando, from the columns in mandolin mag. And I got a bunch of classical violin stuff from our most recent public library used book sale.

I've been at it for about 1.5 years now, and I can sight read at about 100 bpm. So, don't get frustrated, it takes a while. Its so worth it though. I still read tab, but only when its my only option. Good luck!

Terry Martin

I did pretty much the same thing. I also started to write out some of those tunes using the ABC format with abc2win.exe

Stay away from books that have tab in them, or else cover up the tab with strips of paper, or your eye will migrate to the tab instead.

J. Coon

I just started learning to play the mandolin about a month ago. Prior to the mandolin, I learned to play the banjo using tablature only. I found this was very limited and promised myself to learn to play standard notation while learning the mandolin.

I am currently using my daughter's beginning Violin-Book One of "Essential Elements for Strings" by Robert Gillespie, et. al. Since it is written for elementary or middle school students, it is easy to follow. You only have to adapt the violin fingers (no frets) to the mandolin. I found this was not hard at all. There are some exercise that are violin-related only I skip but I find I am reading standard notation quite well only after a few weeks of practice and patience. This book is about $6.00 so it won't take a bit out of your wallet.

If you want a book geared to the mandolin, "Teach Yourself to Play Mandolin" by Dan Fox is very similar to "Essential Strings" and cost around $12.50. It too explains fingering for the mandolin, shows strumming patterns and includes mandolin chords.

I bought "Teach Yourself to Play Mandolin" after starting "Essential Elements for Strings." But the information in "Teach Yourself..." is excellent. Unfortunately, "Teach Yourself..." does not come with a CD but this should not be a problem and will force you to learn timing and rhythm.

G. E. Nelson

When I took fiddle lessons some 17 years ago, I told the teacher that as a folkie guitar player, I was comfortable with tab, but not notation. Ah, wise teacher! He tricked me, said notation for fiddle (or mandolin, too) is easy.

First position: each note is on a different line of the staff, so none of this wondering where to play on the fingerboard.

It worked! I can now use notation to read mando music too, though I prefer tab.

When you start playing up the neck, it's a little more complicated... But If *I* could do it, then it will be easy for you.

Rich McCarthy

This has been an interesting thread to me. I've always been a by-ear player, although I can kind of pick out a tune on the keyboard as long as it doesn't have any of those funny little 'd's or pound-signs in the signature. Every time I try to really learn notation my brain learns the tune faster than I learn the notation and I suddenly find that I'm playing the tune but _not_ really reading the notes, my eyes just glaze over and skim. I have never come up with a way around this to force me to read the notes. If I pick a tune that I don't know or make up a group of random notes, then I also don't know if I've played it right or hit the wrong note.

Alan Dunwell

I'm re-doubling my effort to learn sight-reading as well, and perhaps some of the insights that have crossed my mind would be useful.

Getting started. Learn the positions of the notes on the paper one string at a time. Got that? one string at a time. Commit to memory each of the notes on the G string. Play one string patterns and write them out. scan through notation and identify all of the notes that are played on the G string in open position. When you have this down, add the D string, and repeat the process of playing and writing patterns and scanning notation. Follow with the A string and then the E. By breaking the task down to one string at a time, the job will be easier, and with each new string you add, you'll be also reinforcing what you have already learned. It's just like learning a language.

You need to know the names of the notes on the paper. This will help when you're first translating from notation to fretboard. The best practice for this is to read music without an instrument in hand. Just take a book of tunes, look at the key signature, then call out the notes to yourself as you go through. Make sure you are correct on each note. Repeat this exercise until you can read the notes faster than you can say them.

You need to know the location of the notes on the fretboard. Somebody on the list once told how Mike Marshall, in a workshop, would call out note names, and you had to find it on your fretboard. It's a great exercise, and you can do this by yourself IF you've already done the steps above. Start reading tunes and finding, then playing, the notes on the fretboard. Fiddle tunes work great, because they are short, and generally stay in one of the common keys. Don't worry about the note values yet, you're concentrating on the note positions.

Note values. Hmm. I think the best way to learn note values is to start without an instrument in hand, but since this is something I'm not especially good at yet, you can take this or leave it (of course, that's true about all of the above as well). Count your way through the music. If your smallest note value is an 8th note, it counts as 1 a quarter note counts 1, 2 and a half note as 1,2,3,4. If you run into a dotted value, let's make that "and". With this in mind, take a familiar tune in hand, and count through the timing. So the start of "The Wise Maid" would sound like:

1 - 1 - 1 - 2 - and - 1 - 1 - 1... the sequence is 8th note, 8th note, dotted quarter note, 8th note, 8th note, 8th note.... Sing the beats to yourself, slap your knee, or do whatever works for you to get the feel of the rhythm. Once you have that, try playing the notes along with the rhythm, starting slowly at first. Keep working on it until it starts to take shape as a tune with the correct notes and correct timing.

Finally, practice at least a little bit every day. If it's 5 minutes at breakfast while eating a bowl of cereal, or during the commercial breaks of whatever program you might be watching on the tube, fit it into the small spots. Lots of small doses will be better for you than one large dose. If you try this, and discover it actually works for you, I'd love to hear about it.

Tim Piazza

Sounds like you're learning to read notation just fine - once you do learn a tune, skimming over the notation is natural. It's sort of like reading text - the notes can be taken in as phrases instead of individual notes. I think there is a big difference between sight reading in notation and reading tunes you already know. I've only in the last few years gotten better at sight reading at speed through a lot of practice (or, through not practising the things I should prior to playing them with others!). Just keep learning your new tunes in notation instead of tab and learning to read notation will follow.

d'Andre Willis

I think you are on to something there. Just like learning to read, you first learn the letters and how they sound. Then you learn how they combine and you read the words by just seeing the words and not decoding each one. Srot of leik waht haeppns wehn yuo raed thsi sentaenc.

The next phase in reading is reading a whole phrase, followed by reading a whole line at a time.

I think sight reading music is very similar. Learn to read the individual notes and where they are on the mandolin. Then as you recognize the notes learn to read groups of notes, then several measures and then whole phrases.

Of course, I may be all wet because I still can't sight read well unless I hear someone play it first.

Jim C

The Fiddler's Fakebook might be the best reading tool a mado-player could buy: tons of tunes you've probably never heard before, almost the entire book is in first position, and there's quite a bit of rhythmic variety (which for a fiddler, of course, means only 75% of it's a steady stream of eighth notes).

Seriously though, I've always found that if I first read/sing the rhythm of the piece, the notes fall into place much easier when I attempt it with the instrument. I also find that in common keys I read often, I almost never think about the individual note name, but rather it's intervallic relationship to the root...does that make me a math geek?


I have to play with a bunch of fiddlers who can sight-read anything at depressingly fast tempi.

Getting tired of being left behind, I was in the habit of sight-reading five tunes a day for quite a while (until I got blindsided by an unforgiving deadline). You're right that if you know the tune your ears and hands will cheat. The solution is to pick new tunes every day. There are a jillion jig/reel books around with so many tunes you can't possibly know them all. Fiddler's Fakebook was mentioned -- it's good. Portland Collection, is good, too, as is O'Neill's 1000 Irish tunes.

Give it a try -- as slow as you need to, and don't feel bad about flipping to the next one if the tune is in something ugly like A flat ;> I think you'll be pleased at how fast the old wetware starts getting it when you persuade your unconscious you mean business.

Jeff Lawrence

Contrary to most everyone there involved in learning to read notes rather than tab (play by number) approach, I think the best way is not necessarily going at it with impatience to be able to recognize tunes in another language. There is no substitute for building these skills in a stepwise, orderly fashion starting with lesson one and working your way through. Part of it is learning rhythm values and here you don't need an instrument in hand. In fact, you might be better off getting an elementary drum book or theory book and just go through it. For the actual learning of the notes, there are two parts. One is the theoretical or actual acoustic understanding (shouldn't be a problem in principle), the actual sounds of each note and there relation. The hard part for 'tabbers' is that any given note can be found in several places on the mandolin and which fret or open string we choose should be chosen for a musical reason(phrasing or, if necessary, technical concerns). Rather than starting in the first position, with all those tempting open strings, I would have the student start in the third position (first finger on the G string on the fifth fret, the note which is called C). Here you would be obliged to employ the fourth finger (a serious weakness in most players), would start in a tonality that doesn't have any sharps or flats (step by step) and should begin simply with a few scales or scale fragments, arpeggios and eventually a piece or two that fits in the range of 2 octaves. You could even write your own stuff (even just randomly written notes in this range) and try them out. Slow at first, keeping your eyes on the page as much as possible. Take one measure at a time, learn it, go back to the previous measure, carry on through to the following measure, keep building note familiarity and the freedom from having to keep your eyes glued to the fingerboard. One bit of advice, while you're at it, you might as well learn to keep fingers down as much as possible. Too many players lift all their fingers high in the air except for the one that is being played. What you get is one finger typing syndrome and will slow your technic and make it unreliable. When you play a scale going upwards, each finger should remain on the last note they played until required elsewhere. In scales going downwards, when you place the 4th or 3rd finger, the other fingers should be pre-positioned as well, so that from the 4th finger to the first, you are simply lifting fingers rather than placing them one after the other in a button pushing fashion.

Richard Walz

I have a short course "The Tab Reader's Guide to Standard Notation" book/cassette which teaches how to apply tab reading skills to learning standard notation. $14.95

John McGann

I've always thought of notation numerically. It helps me to think in terms of "odd" or "even" On the mandolin (at least in the first position) the notes on the lines are always played with the index or third fingers, and he notes on the spaces are 2nd, or 4th/open. If you can memorize which notes are the open strings (They're always going to be on spaces equidistant from each other visually) Then notes on the first line above the open string is going to be a "1" which is odd, the spaces are a "2" and so forth. If you can get this into your head, it cuts down your options by 50% -- at least as far as determining where the note is on the freeboard.

This doesn't help much in terms of the number of counts the note gets, but then again, tab doesn't help there at all.

Tim O'Laughlin

Some 40+ years ago, I studied classical guitar for a year- my first introduction to notation.

Fast forward to 1985, to a year of fiddle lessons using notation, from my trickster teacher.

Sam, I have to confess: after that, I reverted to using Tab (for guitar and/or mandolin) when I learn a new piece.

What I have retained from my experience with notation, is the ability to quickly read the timing of a piece from the notation; but if I have a choice, I prefer to read from tab that includes timing symbols. Tabledit does this nicely for me.

For practical tips for getting comfortable with notation, Tim Piazza's post does this very well.

I also find it useful to listen to tunes in Tabledit. You can compare what you hear to what is notated.

When I compose instrumentals, I will check them by entering into a music program like Tabledit. Playback then tells me if I have entered the correct timing of individual notes.

I encourage you to keep on learning to read.

Rich McCarthy

Since there have already been lots of good suggestions on this topic, let me address the next step: once you understand the mechanics of sightreading, it's important to build the right habits to be a better sight-reader.

One problem new readers face is getting past the stage of "I can figure it out, but it's slow and I end up memorizing." Once we figure out the notation, memory takes over and we play from memory (not always accurate) rather than reading what's on the page. The usual solution is more practising -- but while practice is of course important, practising bad habits will reinforce playing with bad habits!

We must train the eyes to move forward, letting go of mistakes, and always staying ahead of the beat. But how to do this when your fingers don't recognize the notes fast enough? At this stage you need either: 1) a set of skills to simplify the music as you read it so you can perform as much of it as you can comprehend in real time; or 2) a resource of music that's easy enough that it can be sight-read.

The first solution would include skills such as:

  1. looping: choose a smaller phrase (maybe just a measure or two) and repeat it while the time moves on

  2. reduction: focus on performing only the first note or beat in your looped phrase IN TIME. Once you can play what's in the first beat in time, add the second beat and so on, until you're playing the entire phrase

  3. releasing of mistakes: this is the hardest skill for most of us, since it's so natural to want to look back and see if we were correct, or what the right note was. Retrain yourself so that when there's a mistake or even a moment of doubt, look ahead instead of back. Without stopping, look for a familiar place to get back on track: a strong chord tone, a familiar note, a strong downbeat.

The second solution involves a sightreading method book. This resource can be invaluable since it's designed as a systematic approach to sightreading: it begins with simple melodies and rhythms and introduces one new idea at a time. If you want to work on 3/4 time or the key of Eb, for example, you can look it up this way. Best of all, there's always new material to read, so you can't memorize as long as you keep moving ahead. One of my favorites is "Music for Sight-Singing" by Robert Ottman. While it's designed to develop ear/sight-recognition of melodies and rhythms, it's equally valuable for developing reading skills on your instrument.

It can't be overstressed that to learn sightreading, you must keep the time moving -- a metronome takes the burden of timekeeping off your shoulders and makes moving ahead far easier. Or better yet, use prerecorded drum tracks, which convey phrasing as well as tempo. There's lots of software for this, or you can check out the drum loops on the Berklee ear training site:

And remember to have fun with it! Fluent reading skills can open up a world of new perspectives -- instead of being limited to what's already been done on mandolin.

August Watters

I learned to read shortly after I started mandolin, a little over 10 years ago. I had never read before with a stringed instrument, although I did play keyboards (reading badly and cluelessly) at a much earlier age, and played guitar by ear for years. I never could read tab with any fluency.

With mandolin, my teacher would pull a chart that suited the lesson from his incredible inventory, and away we would go. Bluegrass, fiddle tunes, Bach, jazz, you name it. Most of the charts were for other instruments, he's a multi-instrumentalist. Flute, violin, recorder, guitar, keyboard charts, it didn't matter, as long as it was on the treble clef and for a C instrument. If he didn't have something I was interested in, it was easy enough to get it from any number of sources.

A few years ago, I went to Brazil for the first time, hooked up with Ricardo Dias and got the beginning my choro education. We hit some music stores on that trip, and because I could read, it was instant gratification -- everything is in notation, they don't use much tab in Brazil, and they speak a different language. Bang, instant access to a whole new style, and while there's lots of subtleties in the style, the entree was being able to read and get the basics down quickly. Someone asked me recently if I had heard a choro tune. I hadn't, but it was easy to hear how it went by playing the chart in one of the books I have.

Now I'm in a jazz band, a discipline that I am relatively new to as a string player. Again, I work from charts, can play nearly any "C" chart from a fakebook, and go from there.

One thing that reading has done for me is something I didn't expect. It makes it so easy to learn and memorize a tune that it doesn't take much more effort to improvise over it, and the chart is there as a reference to get back to, no matter how far out I get. I've reached a point where I can often visualize a lead sheet while playing if I need to get back to the anchor point of the melody.

It's all music, there's only 12 notes (at least for Western-based music), all the tools work for all the genres. The more tools the better.

Larry Klose

To me, one of the best payoffs is in discovering unexpected surprises. That's one reason I recommend the Ottman book I mentioned -- it's full of folk tunes and music collected from all around the world, so instead of feeling like you're playing artificial exercises, you're really learning interesting music from many different sources you'd probably never otherwise discover. There are plenty of other good reading methods too.

Another benefit will be in developing your ear -- because standard notation (unlike tab) actually shows you how the music SOUNDS, not just where to put your fingers, you become connected in a more musical way to what you're playing. When you learn by tab, you're memorizing fingering patterns, and the notes you're making are a byproduct -- whereas standard notation develops your ability to mentally "hear" the music. Next thing you know, you'll be associating the pitch in your ear with position on the staff, and the fingerings will follow. When you can mentally "hear" the pitches before you play them, that opens up improvisational avenues -- so learning to read, in the long run, will pay off in your ability to improvise as well.

Oh, and did I mention that your children will become more obedient, and your boss will respect you more? I hope you remember me when you get that big raise...

It's worth saying here that most people find reading music is EASY -- so many people seem to think it's going to be difficult, but this is really a myth. It's kind of like figuring out a puzzle.

August Watters

To add to August's excellent post- I learned to do it when I was a kid-and kind of forgot it-and relearned when I was 17 or so-how hard could it be? This may help light the fire:

1) If you the least bit interested in jazz (which has a deep and rich history, as does bluegrass, old time, and the various celtic styles), you can pick up and play any jazz guitar, piano, saxophone, trumpet book-How about the Charlie Parker Omnibook in C? That will keep you busy for the rest of your life...who do you love? Louis Armstrong? Lester Young? Art Tatum? Bill Evans? Clifford Brown? Pat Metheny? Coltrane? The Marsalis Brothers? The Brecker Brothers? There are easily available transcription books of all these guys. In notation only.

2) Ditto any classical music- how about the Bach violin sonatas and partitas? That'll keep you busy for several lifetimes, and teach you all about harmony. Many feel Bach was the first jazz musician, better music for putting scales and arpeggios into a musical context. Talk about elegant! Notation only.

3) If you understand notation, you will know what the notes on the fingerboard are. Then, you can come up with a battle plan for almost unlimited voicings for chords- rather than 3233, you can think:

Bb E C G- let's see, C7, or if I call it A# E C G, F#7b5b9...same shape...the root of the unaltered chord is a whole tone above string 4, the root of the altered chord is a whole tone above string 3...AHA!

Theory makes a lot more sense using the language of theory, which is notation, rather than tab, which (let's face it) is a road map specific to the mando that shows you WHERE but not WHY.

4) Fiddle books are a great source for mando. Stacy Phillips has dozens of 'em out via Mel Bay...great source material for mando. Notation only.

5) Wanna play someone else's original music? 99.99% chance against them tabbing it for you. Notation only.

6) There is more than one position to play any given line. Tab tells you one. If you know the notes, you can experiment with other positions and fingerings, which deepens your relationship with the instrument (hey, Valentine's Day is coming up!) Knowing your options helps you become a better improvisor, if that's your goal.

7) When you ear is attuned to notes as they relate to chords, rather than ONLY fret positions, learning tunes and breaks by ear is faster and easier. If you are strictly a Monroe style player, you can still gain a lot of understanding by having a system to relate to, to understand Mr. Monroe's note choices.


Neither notation nor tab can give you the REAL details- appropriate feel, timing (in the deeper performance sense), tone, articulation...all of that is developed through the crucial skill of listening.

John McGann