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August Watters

The Language of Mandolin Notation

Rating: 13 votes, 5.00 average.
In thinking about the best ways to notate mandolin music today, it can be helpful to consider some mandolin music that was very specific about where notes are to be played, and by which finger -- a century before the rise of mandolin tablature. The following excerpt is from Calace's first prelude (op. 45), included in his Metodo per Mandolino volume 6a:

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Perhaps the most interesting part about the notation is how seldom Calace indicates fingerings and position shifts – suggesting how much was implied by the composer, and understood by the player. This elegant language involves writing in a few fingerings (usually to indicate exceptions to the rule), and is still in widespread use today among mandolin composers.

Mandolin notation is built on a few underlying guidelines:
1) music is in first position unless otherwise indicated (or, as in this case, is otherwise clear);
2) first finger covers fret 1-2; second covers 3-4; third covers 5-6; fourth covers fret 7 – unless otherwise indicated;
3) notes available on open strings are normally played open, unless obvious or otherwise indicated. (Ascending scale runs are a common exception.)

The excerpt above implies several positions shifts and specific fingerings, but evidently Calace felt a need to specify fingerings only in measure 6, beat 3, where the chord (from bottom up) C#-G-A-E is to be played with fingers 4-3-0-0. The fourth finger on sixth fret is written in, perhaps because it contradicts guideline number 2 above.

Let’s add a few more indications to clarify some of the details that Calace’s audience evidently understood:

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Surveying the contemporary music being written today for mandolin, fingerings and position shifts are often written sparsely – more like the first example than the second. The level of detail in the second example is redundant, but good for teaching purposes.

In comparing the advantages and disadvantages of standard notation and tablature, what is sometimes overlooked is this elegant language of mandolin notation – a language which has all of the advantages of standard notation and yet makes clear where fingerings and position shifts occur. It's a tradition that lives on, particularly in the classical mandolin world, and has much to offer all contemporary mandolinists.

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Updated Jul-18-2015 at 9:03am by August Watters



  1. dang's Avatar
    Thanks for the blog post on this, I am new to the classical mandolin world (another Thile/Bach convert) and you raised a few questions I guess I had never considered.
    Is mandolin notation specifically different than notation for violin?
    I guess there could be very different notations for picking vs bowing but as to the fretboard/fingerboard wouldn't the notations be similar?
  2. August Watters's Avatar
    I've rarely seen violin music with fingerings -- usually that's left to the player or section leader to resolve any questions. Classical violinists often avoid open strings entirely, because they'd lose control of intonation and vibrato -- so unless you're a fiddler, open strings on a violin may be something of a special effect. Some classical mandolinists also avoid open strings, but most of us use open strings at least part of the time. That's worth a later blog post!

    I like the way mandolin composers indicate position shifts by adding a fingering to show where the note is played. Doing this well requires reading intervals, so it's not surprising that a lot of mandolin methods begin with interval studies!