ABC Notation, Pt. 2–What Is It?

ABC notation is a way to write out music using just the characters available on a standard computer keyboard. The End…

Just kidding. There’s a bit more to it than that. Basically the above statement is true, and one could learn to read and write abc notation kind of like standard staff notation, but abc files are very useful in more ways than that. So first of all, what does abc notation look like? Like this:

X: 1
T: Garrett Barry’s
R: jig

M: 6/8
L: 1/8
K: Gmaj
A|: DEF ~G3|AGE c2A|dcA d2e|fed cAG|
~F3 GFG|AGE (3Bcd e|dcA GEA|DED D2 A:|
|:dcA d2e|fed (3efg e|dcA c2d|efd ecA|
dAA d2e|fed (3efg e|dcA GEA|DED D2 A:|

Garrett Barry’s jig is the first tune I learned both on whistle and concertina.

So as you can see, it’s got a number of lines, each beginning with a letter followed by a colon. That’s part of the syntax of the notation. All of the information with these tags is collectively called the “header”. It tells various programs important information about the tune so that it can be transformed into sheet music and sound files. To explain–
  • X:” is sort of an arbitrary reference number, handy for organizing collections of tunes–you need a number here but it doesn’t matter which one.
  • T:” precedes the Title of the tune.
  • M:” tells the software that, in this case, the tune is in 6/8 Meter.
  • L:” explains what Length each letter typed in the file is to be played, in this case, each letter is equal to an eighth note.
  • K:” denotes the Key of the tune.

After the header, there’s the tune itself. If you just wrote out all the notes of the tune in order, you’d be on your way to writing abc notation, but there’s some “punctuation” you’ll need as well. Just as standard staff notation uses symbols to clarify the flow of the music, so abc notation uses similar symbols. In fact, the characters available on the keyboard are used to approximate the symbols found in standard notation. Why reinvent the wheel, huh? Here’s some sheet music:

garrett sheetTo explain a couple of the basic symbols–this tune is in 6/8 time, because it’s a jig, so each group of six eighth notes is separated by a vertical line (like | ) in order to make it easier to read. Also, usually the A part of a tune will repeat twice before the B part begins. The B part normally would repeat twice as well, often. To show this repeating pattern, the A part of the tune is bracketed within  symbols that looks a bit like  |:  and :| These symbols tell software that play abc files to repeat that part before moving on. You can see this in the abc file for Garrett Barry’s:

|: DEF ~G3|AGE c2A|dcA d2e|fed cAG|
~F3 GFG|AGE (3Bcd e|dcA GEA|DED D2 A:|

Not all tunes have all eighth notes. Very few do, actually. So if each letter represents an eighth note, how does one write a longer note? Let’s look at the first phrase of Garrett Barry’s:

|: DEF ~G3|

Ignoring the tilde (~) for the time being, let’s remember that between the two vertical lines there should be six eighth notes. Each letter is one eighth note, so I count one, two, three, four letters. But wait–there’s a number in there too. To lengthen the G, the number 3 was placed after the letter, to bring the G’s total length to three eighths. So the G is sounded just as long by itself as the three preceding notes, for a total of six beats between the lines. Make sense?

Finally, each letter represents a note, but as we know, notes repeat every octave. So there’s a middle C, but there’s also another C an octave above and below that middle C. How does one (or the interpretive software) know which C is to be played? Well, there’s a trick for that! Middle C is written just like that–a capital letter C. All the notes above middle C in the same octave are also written as capitals, and those above the B above middle C (up to the next b)  are written as lower case. Above and below those points it gets a little tricky.

C, D, E, F, G, A, B, C (<–middle C) D E F G A B c d e f g a b c’ d’ e’ f’ g’ a’ b’

That looks like this in standard notation:

notes

about covers the range of Irish music overall. Again, looking at Garratt Barry’s you can see how in the second and third measures the tune gets up into the octave above middle C, and that the letters shift from upper to lower case.

X: 1
T: Garrett Barry’s
R: jig

M: 6/8
L: 1/8
K: Gmaj
A|: DEF ~G3|AGE c2A|dcA d2e|fed cAG|
~F3 GFG|AGE (3Bcd e|dcA GEA|DED D2 A:|
|:dcA d2e|fed (3efg e|dcA c2d|efd ecA|
dAA d2e|fed (3efg e|dcA GEA|DED D2 A:|
That about covers the basics. Next time I’ll talk about how one program, “abcexplorer,” makes it possible to turn abc files into sheet music and midi sound files.
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