If you go to https://www.woodbrass.com/images/woodbrass/FUZ5888-2.JPG you'll see an example of an old manuscript of "tablature", which is a system of notating music not by using a modern score, but by showing where the player's fingers sit on the frets. A similar system is sometimes used today for the guitar. (See, for example: https://www.songsterr.com/?inst=guitar where numbers are used instead of letters.) What I want to do is to create a font which - as close as possible - approximates the shape of letters as shown in that image. There are other images with letters e, f, g, and so on. My ultimate aim is to create a TTF file which I can then use in music notation software. My question is: where is a good place to learn how to do this? All I have to go on are these images of old manuscripts.

Current software I have access to include MetaFont (which uses Bezier curves and an algorithmic approach to create fonts), and FontForge, when I get it running on my (Linux) computer. However, I've never used either of them! As I say, I don't expect anybody to waste their time telling me how to do it - I simply want pointers to good instructional sites. My searches so far have got me more confused than anything else...

Many thanks indeed!


2 Answers 2


Creating a font which contains as glyphs all needed symbols for those old style tablatures is not especially difficult, but needs surely much work and, of course, solid knowledge which all things a font needs after the symbol glyphs are all created. Not everything comes right by using only defaults (which can be a good start).

As already said by others, you can draw the symbols as vector images in any vector drawing programs like Illustrator or Inkscape and many others and then import them to a font editor, In addition many font editors have usable vector drawing tools included.

Tablatures are quite complex layouts. The essence of making a tablature writing program is generating and implementing the rules how different symbols should be placed, scaled and oriented when the music is inputted by using musical terms. A font is only a container for the needed graphic symbols. Fonts know nothing of presenting music, but they can contain data which is useful for good looking placements in text.

If you planned to change the used font in an existing tablature editor your ancient symbols should have the same musical meanings and sizes as the original symbols and the font should have the same metrics. Otherwise the old rule set cannot work.

In theory you could edit the existing font only by changing the glyph shapes to the old style without changing the sizes. That very likely works except

  1. old style tablatures may have something specific for ancient instrumens and such things don't at all exist in the modern tablature editor. You may need to enter such things as decorative inserts, no matter they have a musical meaning.
  2. making an edited version of a copyrighted font can cause legal problems if the owner of the original font has not allowed modified versions. Nothing happens, if your creations stay inside your home, but is that your intention?

Another possibility is to draw the tablatures directly in Illustrator, Inkscape, etc... You'll need only the music symbols, but no font. A drawback: you cannot let a synth play your tablature to detect errors easily and there's no way to generate automatically a skeleton from a midi file nor other notation data.

  • Many thanks - I'm planning on using Lilypond, which I've used to create tablature; it's just that no font is quite "right" in this context. Lilypond can create a modern score and a tablature from the same input. This means that the music can be saved as a MIDI file (which I use generally to check for errors). So the layout is not the issue here: it's the chararacter glyphs. In fact I could probably get away with bitmaps, but of course a vector solution would be preferable. And I can create the bitmaps from screenshots, using imaging tools to clean them up. Aug 20, 2023 at 23:50
  • @AlasdairMcAndrew Entering music to LilyPond is like typesetting. Congratulations to all who can do it and imagine the music at the same time. LP has a certain font (Emmentaler music) which is designed for it. The font is SIL Open Font -licensed. It allows modified versions with certain strict conditions. Learn them. Try at first a simple font editor like Birdfont to edit a glyph in a simple font. Beware losing your original. No idea 1) How to generate new words to the LP scoresetting language if such items are needed 2) Is there a font companion file which needs also edits to make all fit?
    – oneprivate
    Aug 21, 2023 at 13:25
  • Thank you again. I've used Lilypond pretty extensively, and I've created various templates over the years which make entering a new piece relatively easy. I'm also a long time (La)TeX user, so Lilypond's approach suits me very well. But I'll also follow your advice and check out Birdfont. In the meantime, I am enjoying dipping my toes into Metafont! Aug 22, 2023 at 7:21

If you are asking how to physically draw the letter forms, you could use almost any vector software such as Adobe Illustrator, or free software such as Inkscape. To learn software like this, there are lots of tutorials on youtube.

With vector software you can simply draw the letter forms with the Bézier tool (aka Pen tool) on top of the image as a guide.

Once you have drawn all the letters you need, you can use free software such as FontForge, and you can import the vector outlines for each glyph.

For example (this was made in Inkscape)

enter image description here

Note: Although you don't even technically need to use a vector image editor, since the same tool exists in FontForge, it's generally easier to use vector software for this step.

  • Thank you very much. I can easily obtain bitmaps of the letters, and so your method sounds very reasonable indeed! Aug 20, 2023 at 23:52

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