Theorbo Bass Clef

Hey all,

I don’t often write for fretted instruments so sorry if this is something obvious - I’ve just come from a workshop about writing for the Theorbo - all of the examples are written in Bass Clef (although can also be tablature), and the range of the Theorbo is supposed to include G1. When I created the instrument in Dorico though it was in the treble clef and G1 comes up the bright red of “out of range” notes.

Is it correct, am I wrong? Is there a way of adjusting the instrument to include the range that I need so I’m not always writing red notes?

Many thanks

Select the Bass Clef you’ve entered and set it’s “octave shift” property to 1.

That does help thanks. How come the Theorbo is in the treble clef though? Surely it is mainly used for bass continuo?

Indeed, basso continuo parts for theorbo should be notated in the bass clef. Occasionally we will jump into the alto and treble clef range, but the bass clef is primarily what we use.

For solo theorbo repertoire, tablature notation is preferred. It has a significant advantage to modernized staff notation, owing to the double re-entrant tuning version of the instrument that the vast majority of the surviving music is written for. One of the primary reasons we prefer tablature is due to the Campanella Effect- the technique theorbo composers use which enables notes to sustain over each other on adjacent strings, creating a smooth legato effect. It is one of the outstanding and unique features of the instrument, but the problem is that the modern staff notation of this effect is highly illogical and difficult for the mind to process and the body to execute. Because tablature shows you where to put your fingers, instead of what the pitch value of the note is, it is much, much easier to execute these passages without disorienting the mind. For example, a hypothetical ascending scale using the Campanella technique will not go from the lowest numbered string on the instrument to the highest like one would expect on a conventionally tuned plucked stringed instrument. Instead, it might start on the 2nd string, then go up to the 1st, down to the 3rd string, back up to the 1st string, and finally back down to the 3rd string. Take note that the highest note of this hypothetical ascending scale is on the third string! :crazy_face: It is important to realize just how illogical and unnatural this feels if you try to make it happen with modern notes that have guitar-like numbers for which string the note is played on. Tablature takes the guesswork out of it. You just put your fingers down where it says, keep them down, and the magical over-legato effect is produced. From this perspective, “archaic” tablature notation is actually an amazing and innovative technology that humanity had lost once the notation style fell out of popularity along with the instruments that used it.

This is why it is absolutely critical to have proper letter (and number) based lute tablature working as soon as possible in Dorico. With the auto-generation of tablature from modern notation, it would be easy to, for example, to take a modern staff notated scale run, and auto-generate the equivalent tablature notes required to execute it in the Campanella style. The math required to do this is not difficult, but we just need people to ask for these features in order for them to get promoted to a higher priority on the to-do list for this glorious software.

I am sure that this topic was covered in your workshop, but if you need any more info, please don’t hesitate to reach out. Examples can be provided if needed. The theorbo is a special instrument and we need more composers writing for it, so we’d like to assist if there are further questions.




I might as well include an example to illustrate just how effective tablature notation is on a re-entrant tuned instrument such as the theorbo. Look at the following example of mm. 8-9 of the Allemande in a minor by Robert de Visée from the solo theorbo version of this piece, found in the Saizenay manuscript (c.1699):

Compare the above notation, with a modern notation transcription of the same two measures. FYI, I am using the standard guitar string numbers verbosely for clarity:

It took quite an effort to do the mental gymnastics of transcribing this to modern notation while thinking about how these descending scales go down in pitch, while simultaneously trying to understand which string each note is played on, and then reconciling those two factors. The string crossings have no logical order that one can compartmentalize mentally offhand, save for the greatest skilled theorbists. Tablature, however, is a near perfect solution to this specific musical phenomenon, similar to the way that, for example, Heinrich Ignaz Franz Biber used his special notation for the violin sonatas that are played in scordatura tuning. They tell you where to put your fingers rather than force your mind to figure out novel locations for notes. It just makes life easier. Indeed, I can say that for me personally, I would resort to memorizing the phrases that use this Campanella technique rather than rely on my ability to nail them in a performance situation while reading from modern notation.

Make no mistake, however- it is all worth the effort because the effect that the Campanella technique has, when executed well, is glorious. Just listen to Jonas Nordberg execute it perfectly in his outstanding video of the piece.

Please let me know if I can be of assistance with anything else related to the theorbo or lute.




Hi! A workshop in itself! Thank you very much for your input. I’m beginning to learn how passionate and generous the theorbo community is. I’ll look into these things - re-entry tuning is a really interesting aspect that feels quite alien to me - I think as a non player I would be reluctant to notate tablature but perhaps when I’m more used to writing for it.

Sounds like Dorico have a potential consultant :slight_smile:

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