There’s a young man who waits tables at a restaurant near my apartment who is a guitarist studying music formally in school. I don’t know where. Sometimes, when I go to this restaurant, I’ll bring a music theory book with me (or a book on languages, or a biography of a musician or singer), and sometimes I will bring blank sheet and doodle things down as I eat. He noticed this once, and as another musician, he began asking me about the stuff that I write and play.
Being a guitarist, he seems to read from tab mostly, and the idea of reading from sheet music is a new one to him. He mentioned a few things about it that made me think that he was approaching this idea in school, where they were promoting the idea of reading music and not tab. The school itself seems to be modern in feel, with a healthy and vital respect for playing by ear and improv, but they also appear well-rounded in that they value notation as well. Musicians need both, after all. As a pianist, I never questioned the value of sheet music; that’s what we use. There’s no such thing as “tab” for piano (more on this later). As a result, the idea of someone studying music formally who was only just weaning himself off of tab and onto notation was a novel one for me. (I don’t know many guitarists.)
When he advanced these ideas to me — ideas that were new to him — he said things like “written music is more abstract, right?” which it is. But that felt like a classroom quote rather than a real explanation of why musical notation is more valuable than tab. I began to think about why tab was insufficient for a serious musician.
Put bluntly, tab is machine operating instructions, not music. There are two parts to this:
1) Reading music unites you with other musicians who play other instruments. Tab means nothing to a violinist or an oboe player. Tab for an oboe would look very different, and tab for the violin would be crazy — no frets! And yet, when these instruments each play “Happy Birthday,” clearly they are doing something similar. Even though they sound different and are mechanically completely different, on some higher level, what they are doing is “the same.” Using the same notation reflects this sameness, and it ushers you into a fuller, more ecumenical world of other musicians all pursuing similar tasks in different ways, instead of keeping blinders on whereby you know nothing but your own device. Notation is the common language of all musicians.
2) You shouldn’t need to ask the composer where to put your fingers on your own device. If you are the master of that device, you should know how to operate it without being told how. Imagine someone back in the day playing something by Bach on a violin. What kind of impression do you think it would have left had that person gone up to Bach and said, “I’m trying to play something you wrote — where do I put my fingers?” Bach’s likely response would have been, “I don’t know. That’s your instrument, you should know that.” It’s not the composer’s job to tell you where to put your fingers. Composer write music; they don’t babysit amateurs. If you are the master of that device, you should know where to put your fingers.
Tab is operating instructions for a specific device, such that even someone who is totally deaf or doesn’t know what the hell they’re doing can still make a decent noise on it. If you want to play your instrument as well as a totally deaf person or an idiot, so be it. You need to shoot for more. Tab lies within the sphere of things that you, as a musician, must know within yourself. You must expand your knowledge of your instrument to enclose everything that tab represents, and stop using it if you want to be a true master of your device.
Now, the reason piano has no tab is that, in all ways that matter, sheet music is tab for piano. Unlike most other instruments, the piano is somewhat unique in that there is one note per “button.” I don’t press middle C for a C4, and then open the thing, press down 1/3 of the way up the string, and hit the same lever for a G4. G4 has its own separate lever. Thus, sheet music serves the same function for a piano as tab anyway: one note for each lever, and only one lever for each note. When you see a little dot in the first space at the bottom on the treble clef with a # next to it, there is one lever that you can press to get it. Tab would be redundant for a piano, not to mention insane since you are using all ten fingers most or all of the time, and the only way to keep track of that in your mind is to operate at the higher abstract level occupied by the notation anyway.
So for what it’s worth: learn notation. Seriously. You must be able to play by ear, you must be able to speak somewhat extemporaneously on your device (improv), and you must know how to read music. Skip any of these, and you’ll regret it. Even successful musicians who can’t do one will feel the lack and speak to it candidly. Highly talented young classical musicians who live and die by notation yearn to improv, and successful popular musicians almost always regret not pushing forward with “those piano lessons” as a child or learning to read and write music. Don’t shut yourself off from any aspect of music.