How to get started with abc notation

[the first in a series of articles on using and understanding abc]


So you’ve heard about abc notation and you’re intrigued enough to want to find out more.

Or maybe someone has sent you a tune in abc notation and you want to hear what it sounds like.

Or perhaps you’re not interested in the notation itself, but you  want to find the dots for a tune.

Well, the good news is, it’s easy to do all three.

Finding the dots to a tune

For example, if you’re just looking for the dots to a traditional tune, try the abc tune search. At the time of writing (December 2009) there are well over 50,000 tunes available with many historical collections (such as Playford & O’Neill’s) represented.

The search results allow you to see the first line of the tune and click on a midi player which will play a sound file through your computer’s speakers.

Once you’ve located the tune you want, just click on the “tune page” link to take you to the full tune and links to the collection where it originated, plus the midi player again and the abc version of the tune (which often contains additional notes about the tune).

The tune search is not case-sensitive and you can search for a title or just a fragment of a word – for example, click here to search for the tune “Speed the Plough” or here to do a search for the word “jig” (which also finds slip jigs, single jigs, double jigs – any tune where the word jig is mentioned in fact) or here to do a search for tunes in the time signature “6/8”.

Note that, like most search engines, adding spaces between words broadens the search. For example, searching for “slipjig” will only find tunes with “slipjig” as a single word, whereas searching for “slip jig” would also find tunes containing phrases such as “slipjig”, “jig (slip)”, and even “this jig slips along nicely”.

And if you can’t find the tune you want, this is not the only abc search engine – try the others further down the search page.

Viewing and/or listening to abc notation

If you want to take things a bit further – perhaps if someone’s sent you some abc notation in an email – but you don’t want to install any software on your computer, then there are a couple of handy web pages that allow you to do just that.

The abcjs demo page perhaps the simplest – just paste in the abc notation and the score will appear below, with a midi player so you can listen to the tune.

Alternatively, if you want to upload an abc file you could try Colin Hume’s converter (you can also paste in the abc notation directly).

However, if you want to transpose the tune too, the abc converter at is excellent and gives you a lot more options.

Further reading

If this has whetted your appetite and you want to start using abc notation yourself then there are plenty of options.

You can read another article in this series [more to follow]:

Alternatively, you could take a look at the learn abc page for examples and tutorials or the abc software page to find software to install (my favourite packages are EasyABC & ABCexplorer, but there are plenty of other excellent packages).


Chris Walshaw

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One Response to “How to get started with abc notation”

  1. Shantanu H. Joshi says:

    Just what I was looking for. I could quickly compose a tune, and even transcribe it with the tools you have pointed to.

    Thanks a lot. Merry Christmas !!!