What is ABC notation?

  1. HonketyHank
    I got a PM from a fellow Newbie asking about ABC notation and so I thought it might be worth starting a discussion on it.

    ABC notation was developed as a simplified method of writing down a tune using only plain text characters found on a standard (English language) personal computer keyboard. In the early days of computing and the internet, this system proved to be much more efficient to store, transmit, and manipulate than images of a sheet of standard music notation. Its proponents claim that it is easier to learn than standard notation and there are plenty of folks who use it for that reason.

    Several of the websites that I mine for tunes use ABC notation as the primary means for allowing downloads of a tune. (e.g., www.thesession.org, www.ibiblio.org/fiddlers/FCfiles.html, and http://trillian.mit.edu/~jc/cgi/abc/findtune ).

    In ABC notation, the primary logic is that you name the note you are supposed to play and you indicate how long you the note is to sound. The notes are named with a single letter in the range A-G, just like normal (English) music note names. The letter indicating the name of the note is followed by a number indicating how many metronome clicks the note is to be held (if there is no number, it is assumed to be 1). From this basic idea, a whole system has been developed to indicate accidentals, key signature, tempo, repeats, etc.

    For all the details of how to build or read an ABC file, I would recommend starting at www.abcnotation.com/learn . They have tutorials, faqs, forums, links to other sites, etc.

    I usually include an ABC script for the tune of the month but I do not read it very well. Since I already knew standard notation before I ever saw ABC notation, I find ABC to be cumbersome. But if I hadn't already known standard notation, maybe ABC would be simpler to learn. I don't know - both systems convey the same amount of information, so I question its alleged simplicity. I include it because just about any music editing software nowadays can read an ABC file. And for some folks, ABC is the only kind of musical notation they can read.

    A page of ABC notation is much easier for a computer to understand and manipulate than would be gif or jpg of a page of standard notation and it takes far fewer bits and bytes to transmit and store. That's really why it was developed and why it has survived in these days of fast computers, limitless storage, and the internet.

    There are many ABC editors available for different computer systems. A lot of them are free. I use EasyABC. But I don't really do much ABC editing. Primarily I use it if I have copied an ABC script off a web page and I need to dump it into an ABC file to save it or to look at it in standard notation. I could dump it into a text editor (e.g., Notepad), but EasyABC will alert me if there are errors in the file, it will show me the standard notation, and it will play a midi version of the tune. If I download an ABC file, like maybe from TheSession, I often bypass the ABC editor and load the file directly into TablEdit, which is my primary music editing program. And TablEdit gives me tablature as a bonus.

    If you don't read music but want to, I recommend learning standard notation. It is much more widely used. And if you can read standard notation, you should be able to stumble your way through an ABC file once you see its basic structure. The reverse is not necessarily true.

    How do you feel about ABC notation vs standard music notation? Easier? Harder? Redundant? Useful? Everybody gets extra credit for comment and replies.
  2. bbcee
    Thanks for posting this, Henry. As someone who doesn't read standard notation, ABC is really useful. For a tune I want to learn, I'll copy the ABC and dump it into the converter at http://www.mandolintab.net/abcconverter.php. There you can transpose (great for mandola), change keys, print PDFs, etc.

    ABC doesn't follow a quality standard, so it can be variable, but it's great for learning the outlines of a tune at least.
  3. FredK
    I've had a difficult time wrapping my head around ABC notation. I appreciate your write-up on this, Henry. The concept is simple but it seems like more work than necessary. Also, I can't hear the tune in my head reading ABC like I can with standard notation. That probably stems from being raised with standard notation. It's nice to have converters that will do the work for us.
  4. Louise NM
    Louise NM
    Fred, I agree with everything you're saying.

    For the people who use ABC, do you become fluent with it? It impresses me as equally difficult to learn as standard notation, but with many fewer advantages.
  5. MikeZito
    Well - I think my mandolin progress has finally came to a grinding halt. All of these threads lately about notation, tabs, fractional timing, sight-reading etc. have me completely in the dark.

    Is there anything less on the mandolin scale than a newbie? Maybe I'll start a new group called 'Pathetic and Clueless' . . . .
  6. HonketyHank
    If you have music in your head, regardless of how it got there, the objective is to just play what 's in your head. Let the scribes figure out how to write it down.

    Somebody once said "Notes? Hell, they ain't no notes to this thing. You just play it." [ok, yeah, I think it was about a banjo, but still ...]

    Mike, you have music in your head, so neither 'pathetic' nor 'clueless' apply. You'll just have to be a Newbie. I'm glad you're here.
  7. Louise NM
    Louise NM
    Mike, all the rest of us would come join you in the "Pathetic and Clueless" social group. We each have things we do well and things we stink at. I wonder if that isn't the actual definition of a newbie—someone who is very uneven in their strengths and skills.
  8. Mark Gunter
    Mark Gunter
    There’s an ABC notation?
  9. Old Man In
    Old Man In
    My first reaction to the idea of ABC is "Why?" when standard notation is exactly what it says - standard. ABC seem in my opinion to be adding another unnecessary layer of complication to something that's already fairly complex.
    Learning to read music is just the same as learning another language;in fact it is another language but a universal one understood the world over and SN is the script in which it's written. All foreign languages are baffling to the student approaching them for the first time and despite what some tutors may tell you, there are no short cuts.
    SN has been developed over centuries as the universal script for the interpretation of the sounds in the composer's head and is still the most easily read system to date. Given that ABC was developed so notation could be transferred among the early computers, it had its place but nowadays technology advances at such a rate that in reality it's now obsolete. Stick to SN, it's easier in the end.
    Just my personal observations.
  10. MikeZito
    In my next life I am coming back as a unbelievable musical genius who isn't at all fazed by sheet music, standard notation, charts, ABC notation, pitch, rhythm, timing, riffs, licks, scales, alternate tunings, tempo, harmonic structure, pentatonic, diatonic and chromatic chords, atonal music or the argument over F-style and A-style instruments . . .

    . . . and if that doesn't work out, I'll just come back as a cat - I think I could get very used to doing nothing but sleeping and eating all day!
  11. SOMorris
    Coming back as a cat sounds good!
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