For purposes of this discussion, we will be using strict "Beginner's Rules" with reference to finger position. That means that your index finger will be responsible for pressing only the first and second frets, your middle finger will be responsible for pressing only the third and fourth frets, and your ring finger will be responsible for pressing only the fifth and six frets. Your pinky finger would be responsible for pressing the seventh fret, but, if you compare the note that is produced by playing the seventh fret, you'll see that it is identical to the note that is produced by plucking the adjacent open string. Try using your pinky finger to press the seventh fret of the "D" string, and then compare the note that is produced, to the open "A" string. It's the same note, and it's a little easier at this point to just play the open string.
There are three ways to reproduce music – by reading tablature, by reading music, and playing by ear. All three methods have advantages and disadvantages.
Tablature is a numeric system that identifies a specific note, by matching it to the number of a fret on your fingerboard. Imagine that the frets on your fingerboard had numbers on it, like this:
Now look at a piece of tablature notation:
Notice that the numbers are on different strings – that means that you will have to play some notes on one string, and some on another. The bottom "open space" represents your "G" string. The one above it represents the "D", and the one above that represents the "A". The top "open space" represents your "E" string.
The first two numbers on the above tablature are "zero", and they're in the space for your "A" string. That means that you don't use your fingers at all, but you pick the open "A" string twice. The next two numbers are also "zero", but notice that they are in the space for your "E" string. That means that you now pick the open "E" string twice. The next number is a "2", and it is in the space for your "E" string. That means that you put your first finger on the second fret of the "E" string. The last number is a "zero" again, and it's in the space for your "E" string. That means that the last note that you pick, will be your open "E" string.
Now try it again, and a little faster. If you did it right, you should have just played the first line of "Twinkle, Twinkle Little Star"!
Tablature has advantages in that it is very simple to use. It allows beginning students to pick up an instrument and play a song, without having any prior music experience. The disadvantage to tablature is that it is impossible to read fast. And when you become more comfortable with your mandolin, and learn to use your fingers and pick even faster, you will probably reach a point where your eyes and brain simply can't keep up with what your hands want to do.
Is this a crisis? That depends on what type of music you want to play down the road. If you want to play classical, jazz or swing, or play in an organized mandolin ensemble, then you will probably need to take a break and learn how to read musical notation, because that's what's commonly available for that style of music. On the other hand, if you want to play bluegrass, your fellow musicians would probably laugh if you attempted to read musical notation – because that style of music is played by ear.
Reading music is nowhere as difficult as a learning a foreign language, but, like a foreign language, it involves matching information that you know in your native tongue (the notes you are trying to play in a song), to the foreign language (the symbols that are on the paper). A lesson in reading music is far too involved to go in to here. There is additional information on reading music, in the section of this website reserved for my students. Otherwise, there are many excellent beginner books on this topic, available at every music store.
It will take time and experience to become proficient at reading music, but the more you do it, the easier it becomes. Some musicians have been doing for years, and still play the wrong notes because they made a mistake in reading the music language. So expect to hit some bad notes, while you are in the process of learning. Other musicians can pick up very complex pieces of music that they've never seen or heard, and can play the piece perfectly because they've read and interpreted the music language correctly.
The third way of making music is to play by ear, or to "sound it out". This is the most traditional method of learning an instrument, having been around centuries before the existence of either written music or tablature. Most folk and bluegrass music is learned and taught by ear. Once you try it, I think you will find it easier to do than you expected.
Let's pick a simple song and play it by ear – how about "Happy Birthday"? For this version, I'm going to suggest that our starting point be the open "D" string. If you pluck the open "D" string twice, you've just played the word "Happy"!
The next note that you need to find, is the "Birth" in "Birthday". Is that higher, or lower, than the word "Happy"? If you said "higher", you’re correct! That means that the next note is definitely not on the "G" string – because the "G" is a lower string than the "D" – but it has to be somewhere on the "D", "A" or "E" string. But exactly where is it? There's only one way to find out – EXPERIMENT! You know that the note you are looking for is higher than "D", so let's try each of the first six frets on the "D" string. If we don't find it there, we'll move over to the "A" string and keep trying.
Pluck the open "D" string twice (play the word "happy"), and then press your index finger on the first fret of the "D" string and pluck it. Does it sound right, compared to "happy"? If not, pluck the open string twice again, and press your index finger on the second fret. Does that sound right, compared to "happy"? If you said yes, you're correct!
Now let's try and find the "day" in "Birthday". Is that note higher or lower than "Birth"? If you're not sure, experiment!
Let's try and see if it's higher. We know that we first need to pluck the open "D" string twice, and then press the second fret with our index finger. So let's see if the fourth note is higher. Play the first three notes, and then press your middle finger on the third fret. Too high, isn't it? So try the same thing again, but go the opposite direction this time. Play the first three notes, and then press the first fret with your index finger. Does it sound like it's getting closer, but not quite right? Then play the first three notes again, and pluck the open "D" string. If you thought that sounds right, then you are correct!
Now that we've got "Happy Birthday" figured out, let's try and find the "to". Is the "to" higher or lower than "Birthday"? If you thought higher, you were correct! Play the first four notes (the open "D" string twice, index finger on the second fret once, and the open "D" again), and pick any of the six frets on the "D" string. Let's try the index finger on the second fret again. If you thought that was too low, you were correct.
Play your first four "Happy Birthday" notes again and then put your middle finger on the third fret. If that doesn't sound right, play your first four notes again, and then put your middle finger on the fourth fret. If that doesn't sound right, play your first four notes again, and then put your ring finger on the fifth fret. If you thought that one sounded good, you are correct!
Now that you’ve got "Happy Birthday to", you need to figure out where "You" is. Do you think it's higher or lower than "to"? If you said "lower", you are correct. Since you know that "to" is played on the fifth fret of your "D" string, you want to experiment with notes that are lower than that one. Work your way through each fret one by one, until you find the note that sounds good.
Did you think that the song sounded right when you played "you" by pressing your middle finger on the fourth fret? If so, you are correct!
Try working out the rest of the song on your own, using the method shown above. Please remember to use "Beginner Rules" – your index finger will be responsible for the first and second frets, your middle finger will be responsible for the third and fourth frets, and your ring finger will be responsible for the fifth and sixth frets. I will give you a hint by telling you that you will have to move over to the "A" string to find one of the notes in the second "Happy Birthday to you". Two of the notes in "Happy Birthday Dear Susie" will need to be played on the "A" string, and three of the notes in the final "Happy Birthday to You" will be played there as well.
Try using this method to play a simple song of your choosing. Where your starting point is, is entirely up to you. I generally find it easier to start on either the open "A" or "D" string – it's possible to run out of notes if you start on the "G" or the "E" string.
Even if you don't want to play the types of music that are generally played by ear, you will still find it valuable practice to "sound out" your favorite tunes on your mandolin. It helps to reinforce in your mind, what sound is produced when your finger presses a specific fret, and will actually help you make fewer errors when reading music or tablature.