ABC Music Notation – How could I have missed it?

If you’re a music fan, as in you play an instrument, play with other people, join jam sessions, and enjoy swapping tunes, I was going to say you’ll love this, but you probably already do, because I seem to be the last person on the planet to have discovered ABC ascii notation for music. This is NOT tablature. This is extremely straight forward music by characters that translates directly into sheet music & midi files, or can just be sight read directly.

I have no clue how I could have missed it all this time – oh wait, yes I do! Reading over the Wikipedia entry for it, I see it was only invented in late 1991, and released for general public consumption in 1993. Of course I missed it. This stuff is younger than some of my children. Like with the web, those were the years I was busy having babies and raising small children!

It is kind of funny how the web was born and grew up in the same years as ABC notation. But I can say I am almost as excited by the world that ABC has opened up to me as I was/am about the web. I can’t see how I’d ever live without either again.

As I have experienced in the last few months since being introduced to it, ABC notation makes it extremely easy to simply copy/paste a tune into an e-mail and shoot it off to a friend. Or, there are web sites now where there are literally hundreds of tunes available, just buckets and buckets of traditional (non-copyrighted) music, where you can go, search on a tune, and take it home with you with mere copy/paste. My favorite site, lets you search and compile a virtual tunebook. Then you can download the ABC file to your hard drive, or print off the sheet music of your personal selections right from the site.

My gosh — the power of this. I used to go to an Irish/American/Old Time jam session, write down a list of what was played, then go home and thumb through my books, feeling very lucky if I found a few of them. Now, as I did this week, I can just hop online, plug in my list, find almost all of them, and print out a tunebook customized to what was played that night, so I can jump quickly into the local repertoire for the next jam session. And of course, for the voyeurs among us, a free membership at TheSesssion allows one to surf other people’s tunebooks and see what they’re playing, say, over in England.

Then there are various softwares available – I like the quirky unusual interface of ABC-Edit, which is also free. With software such as this, you just paste the ABC code into it, and voila! You can play it back through your system’s midi playback and/or print out the standard sheet music score. Some really nice features of ABC-Edit are that if you have a tune with no chords written in it, it will “Calculate Chords” for you. It’s a little hit and miss – sometimes they are nice chords and sometimes they are not. I realize one can’t seriously expect a computer to actually compose music 🙂 If you don’t like the chords it makes, it also has a feature you can try called “Calculate 2nd Voice”. It asks you how far above or below the melody line you want the 2nd voice, and whether you want to reduce the number of notes, like for say, a cello line. You can experiment with that until you find something pleasing.

Here – I’ll pass you a tune I got from TheSession, and added a 2nd voice to with ABC-Edit. It’s a tune I’d been looking for the sheet music for for, since, no kidding, 1987. Today, after 2 decades, I simply found it and took it home by straight copy/paste. I have a little more tweeking to do to make it even closer to what I was looking for, but this is pretty dang close. (Hint – don’t read it. Play it back with some ABC software.)

X: 1
T: Loftus Jones
C: Turlough O’Carolan
M: 4/4
L: 1/8
R: reel
K: Amajor
|:a4 g2 f2|e2 d2 cd e2|cdBA A2 z2 |cdcB A2B2|
cd e2 de f2|e2 dc dcBA|GAGF E2 z2|ABAG F2 d2|
edec dcdB|A2 E2 F2 G2|A2 F2 G2 A2|B2 G2 A2 B2|c2 A2 B2 c2|
d4 e2 z2|dcBA GA B2|A2 ED C2 E2|A4 A2 z2 \:|
|:e2 G2 A2 F2|G2 E2 F2 G2|A2 B2 G2 c2|F4 G4|
c2 c2 B4|ABcd c2 B2|ABcd edcB|A2 G2 F4|
AcAc AcAc|AcAc AcAc|fg a2 g4|f4 f2 g2|
aAaA gAgA|fAfA eAeA|dBdB cAcA|BAGF EF G2|
A2 ED C2 E2|BAGF E2 e2|dcBA GABG|A4 A2 z2 \:|
|:A4 G2 F2 |E2 D2C2 E2 |C2B,2 A,2 z2 |C2C2 A,2 B,2 |
C2 E2D2 F2 |E2D2D2B,2|G,2G,2 E,2 z2|A,2A,2 F,2 D2 |
E2E2D2D2|A,2 E,2 F,2 G,2 |A,2 F,2 G,2 A,2 |B,2 G,2 A,2 B,2 |C2 A,2 B,2 C2 |
D4 E2 z2|D2B,2G,2 B,2 |A,2E,2 C,2 E,2 |A,4 A,2 z2 \:|
|:E2 G,2 A,2 F,2 |G,2 E,2 F,2 G,2 |A,2 B,2 G,2 C2 |F,4 G,4 |
C2 C2 B,4 |A,2C2 C2 B,2 |A,2C2E2C2|A,2 G,2 F,4 |
A,2A,2A,2A,2|A,2A,2A,2A,2|F2 A2 G4 |F4 F2 G2 |
A2A2G2G2|F2F2E2E2|D2D2C2C2|B,2G,2E,2 G,2 |
A,2E,2 C,2 E,2 |B,2G,2 E,2 E2 |D2B,2G,2B,2|A,4 A,2 z2 \:|


Gawhead! Dive in and try it! I guarantee, you will get hooked on picking, tinkering with (to make them sound like the version you know), & playing back tunes like they were so many pieces of candy, and then passing your favorites around to your friends.

Betcha can’t stop at just one!


About Suzanne

Reader, Inventor, amateur musician. My interests are ... kinda strange. I hope yours are as strange.

One Comment

  1. You might want to check out the free sheet music notation program LilyPond at

    The notation looks like a computer program because it’s based on the Scheme programming language. The sheet music output is in Postscript and PDF, and it looks very professional.

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