Keeping Tabs

I used to play a fair bit of Japanese sankyoku music on my maplewood shakuhachi (couldn’t afford the bamboo variety!) with koto players Hideko Dobashi, Rie Yanagisawa (who also played shamisen) and later in Toulouse with Takaya Odano. Unlike Western music, each traditional Japanese instrument has its own system of tablature, and may even have more than one depending on which of many contending schools you belong to. The two main systems for shakuhachi are called Kinko and Tozan, and use kana syllables with dots on either side to indicate strong and weak beats. For the koto, the strings are identified by numbers and boxes are used to indicate measures. Since kotos can be tuned to different scales by moving the little bridges, each koto score stipulates the tuning at the top, so the string number can represent quite different pitches. Sort of like a key signature. The “accidentals” are in fact instructions to push the string down with the left hand for the sharps (oshi) and push harder (tsuyo-oshi) for the double sharps.

Here is a page of Biwa tablature dating from around 738 AD, showing what must be some of the oldest extant composer’s undos.


Western musical notation on the other hand takes its cue from the keys of the traditional keyboard. The white keys are left unmarked and the black notes are marked with accidentals. Originally derived from plainsong notation, it became a keyboard tablature to which all the other instruments have had to adapt in various ways, and in various transpositions to map each instrument’s “home” scale to C major. Pencil composers may have cursed these inconveniences, but they would have had to curse a lot more if each instrument required its own tablature. Imagine trombones notated with one of seven slide positions and a harmonic for each note! Or the violins written with numbers on four lines… (For some reason nobody thought to make viola scores transposing, making life extra hard for violinists called on to double.)

Nowadays guitarists are practically the only ones keeping tabs, in a tradition that goes back to the Elizabethan lutenists and beyond. Hardly surprising considering the mental acrobatics required to read keyboard notation on a guitar!

I discovered the Jankó whole tone keyboard when researching prior art as a first step before patenting my own whole tone keyboard design – which you can play by clicking on the image below:


Needless to say, when I found that my idea was already old hat I saved myself the bother and expense of the patent! A small Japanese company has since brought the idea to fruition with the Chromatone and I wish them luck with it:


Now ask yourself, what kind of tablature would you use for an instrument with 312 buttons and no black notes to tell you where you were? Or for a whole-tone tuned panflute which you can’t even look at while playing it? The thing about these instruments is that you may not know which note you are playing, but if the one you are playing sounds right and you gauge the interval correctly, your next note will sound right too! It’s perfect for improvisers. Everything is relative – like singing in the shower. Einstein would love this! And this was the inspiration for MOVES notation. MOVES notation is about hearing one note and getting the interval right to find the next.

MOVES is for working on melodic fragments. It describes only the intervallic matrix of the melody, and is a pared-down sequence of instructions. In the classroom it can be translated into finger gestures, and it lends itself to work with flash cards. And what is amazing is that if you transfer it to really tonality-bound instruments like the saxophone or the trumpet, it can totally transform your playing.

I look for solutions for the classically chained musician, or in fact anyone who wants to improvise, who would like to do what comes naturally – but nothing does. Some players really need precise instructions in order to feel that what they have played is valid or OK. MOVES notation helps them make the transition from playing what is “correct” to playing what is intentional. It puts your Inner Melody in charge.

Follow me on Twitter @jazzpanflute


About jazzpanflute

jazz panpipe pioneer and designer
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