New Hampshire Country Dance Fiddle Tunes Website

About abc Notation

An Introduction to abc Notation

The tunes on this website were written out using abc notation. In this section I provide an introduction to abc notation in which we look at what it is, how it's been used, some links to useful web sites, and some discussion of relevant software for using abc notation.

I divided the abc section into two parts: an introductory series for people interested in making use of abc tunes and a more detailed and somewhat more technical series aimed more at people who might want to write out tunes in abc. This is part of the Introduction to abc Notation section. Please use the abc Notation menu above to navigate the abc pages.

In This Section

This section provides an introduction to abc notation that should be adequate for making use of the music on this website. It then provides some additional material for those who would like to learn more, and some links to additional resources. Here is an overview of the section.

Important Section Note. For some reason the code used to create playable tunes conflicts with the use of tabbed pages. This section is on several pages; use the buttons above to get you from one page to the next.

  • Introduction to abc Notation. Beginning on this page, an overview of abc notation and how it works, illustrated with examples.
    • This section gives an overview of abc notation that should be adequate for anyone primarily interested in using abc documents created by others.
    • It includes an overview of the parts of an abc document, a page on using abc software to produce standard notation and to play the tune, and a page of abc links that you may find helpful.
  • A More Detailed Look at abc. This section goes into considerably more detail on how abc notation works. If you would like to use abc notation to write out tunes this section should be helpful.
    • It looks at the workings of the tune header and body, and at using formatting commands in the file header to get much better control of the formatting of a tune than most people expect from abc notation.


abc Notation: Overview & Introduction

Here we look at abc notation: what is it, and why it's so useful. Important note: You don't have to understand how abc notation works to find a tune on the Internet and play it or print it out. But it's a great way of writing out music and is worth knowing at least something about.

What is abc notation?

The abc notation system is a method of writing out music as plain text. It was invented by Chris Walshaw in the 1993. An abc music file can be interpreted by abc software which can display it as standard musical notation, print it out, and play it on your computer’s speakers.

Why is it so useful?

Because abc files are plain text they are easily exchanged between musicians.

  • Text files are readable by any computers using any operating system.
  • An abc tune can be sent in the body of e-mail messages; it doesn’t need to be sent as an attachment. Even when sent as an attachment the tunes are small and download quickly.
  • They can be edited in any word processor, although an abc reader is best because it lets you display it and play it back for purposes of proofreading.
  • An abc tune is easy put on a web page. It can go right on the page; no need for a link to the tune.

I have heard people comment that they don’t like abc notation because they can’t read it and prefer to read standard notation.

  • This is a misunderstanding: you don't have to read abc notation. The abc notation is translated by an abc reader into standard musical notation or into a midi file which you can listen to.

How prevalent is abc notation?

Because it’s so convenient abc notation has become practically the default format for writing out fiddle tunes. It’s nearly perfectly suited for writing out a melody line with chord symbols.

  • Although it doesn’t give you quite as much formatting flexibility as more sophisticated music composition programs, the advantages generally outweigh the disadvantages.
    • Actually, as I wrote out the tunes for this web site I discovered that abc notation can handle nearly everything I wanted, including much that I had previously assumed was not possible.

How abc Notation Works with an Example

Next we look at some of the basic ideas behind abc notation. I include an example to make the workings of abc notation easier to understand.

How it works I: Tune Information

All tunes are given tune numbers, followed by basic information such as the title, composer, key, tune type, timing, and other elements of a tune. For example, the waltz Amelia would start like this. (Anything after a "%" symbol is a comment and isn't interpreted by the abc software.)

C:Bob McQuillen
R:Waltz  % R for rhythm
L:1/8      % L is the default note length of a 
          % letter with no number.


How it works II: Melody & Chords

This is followed by the code for the melody, chords and any other aspects of the tune that would normally be included in standard notation.

  • Pitch is indicated by the letters A-G, with lower-case or upper-case letters (and if necessary punctuation) to indicate the octave.
  • Duration is indicated by numbers.
  • Putting this together, a low A eighth note might be represented as "A"; a quarter note would be "A2" and a sixteenth note "A/2". An A eighth note an octave higher would be "a".

Continuing with Amelia, the A-part melody would look like this:

"D" D3ED2  | "D" D2F3E   | "D" D2F2 "G" B2     | "D" A4A2 |\
"G" B3GB2  | "D" A2F2E2  | "Bm" D2B,3B, | "G" B,4 "A7" A,2 |
"D" D3ED2  | "D" D2F3E   | "D" D2F2 "G;D" B2   | "D;F#m" A4A2 |\
"G" B3cd2  | "Em" d2e2f2 | "A7" e3cB2   | "A7" A4 :|


On the next page we'll look at the abc code in more detail, and also look at the music produced by the code.