about abc notation

about abc notation

What: abc notation is a system designed to notate music in plain text format. It was designed primarily for folk and traditional tunes of Western European origin (such as English, Irish and Scottish) which can be written on one stave in standard classical notation. However, it has been used for many other types of music and, for example, Steve Allen coded Beethoven's Symphony No. 7, Movement 2 in abc!

When: Since its introduction at the end of 1993 it has become very popular: there now exist hundreds of thousands of tunes in abc, from a variety of historical & contemporary online collections. There are also many abc software tools (for Windows, Mac, Linux, iPhone, Android and other platforms) which can read abc notation and either process it into staff notation or play it.

Why: One of the most important aims of abc notation, and one that distinguishes it from most computer-based musical languages is that it is very concise and can be read easily by humans. In other words, with a little practice, it is possible to play a tune directly from the abc notation without having to process and print it out.

The resulting compactness - each tune is about the same size as a short paragraph of text - and clarity make it very easy to notate tunes. Consequently, it can be easily emailed or discussed online or, if you prefer, just scribbled down on the back of an envelope.

How: Visit the learn abc page to discover how to use abc notation.

Where: Just about everywhere - according to music-notation.info abc is "perhaps the most common music notation format on the internet" and is registered as an internet media (MIME) type. You can find more information about abc notation in a wide variety of places on the web - just google it. Here is a small selection of articles:

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about abc notation research

Abc notation has been used in academic research for some time. Apart from extensive on-line resources, such as large scale collections of historical and contemporary tunes, available since the arrival of the internet, abc's very simple, direct encapsulation helps to facilitate musical analysis and manipulation.

In particular, in recent years this has made it an ideal format for automated music composition & music generation tools, particularly using machine learning technniques which find it relatively easy to scan large numbers of existing tunes, understand some of the composition conventions & paradigms, and produce something in the same idiom. Take a look at folkrnn.org, devised and implemented by Bob Sturm and Oded Ben-Tal, for a great example.

My own research in recent years has used abc notation resources to focus on two aspects of music information retrieval:

  • enhancements for melodic similarity algorithms and, in particular, the use of multilevel representation and recursive local alignment;
  • graph-based visualisation tools (TuneGraph & CorpusGraph), particularly aimed at allowing users of abcnotation.com to explore tune variants and similarities.

The ideas and technniques are described in the following academic conference papers (full details on my academic research pages):

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about abcnotation.com

The abc website has existed in various forms and at various locations since 1995. It moved to its new home at abcnotation.com in June 2009.

Although the statistics vary, as of July 2023 it lists around 115 abc-based programs (from sophisticated transcription software to smart iPhone apps) plus a massive resource of around 800,000 tunes from 160 websites, and has about 300,000 visitors a year from all over the world.

Donations: The abc website has taken many, many hours of work. If you have found it useful and would like to support its development, please click one of the buttons below (you can either donate via PayPal or with any of the major credit / debit cards).

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All donations are very gratefully received and the more that is donated, the more time I can spend on improving the site and extending the tune search.

Acknowledgements: Finally, a number of technologies have been used to put this site together. Grateful thanks to: abcjs, abcMIDI, abcm2ps, Apache Tomcat, Batik, D3.js, DokuWiki, Glyphicons, html-midi-player, IntelliJ IDEA, Java, MobileESP, and, last but certainly not least, WordPress.

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about Chris Walshaw

Chris at Towersey
On stage at Towersey Village Festival
photo: Daisy Mercedes Jones

Chris Walshaw, the inventor of abc and the developer of this website, is a Professor of Informatics in the School of Computing & Mathematical Sciences at the University of Greenwich*, London.

He is also a musician playing English & French bagpipes, flutes, whistles and saxophone.

abc notation bring together his love of music and his profound appreciation of computing, and the web in particular, as a communication tool of great power.

If you want to find out more about Chris' musical ventures, come to a gig, or even buy a CD, then take a look at MoltenAmba (instrumental pyrotechnics ... folk, blues and all that jazz), Angles (folk-trance groove for bals and eurobops), the Climax Ceilidh Band (English ceilidh), The Duellists (now defunct, but with a hurdy-gurdy and bagpipe cult CD), or Zephyrus (for exquisite, mind-blowing bagpipe music).

Thank you for reading this far,

Chris Walshaw

* Disclaimer: the opinions expressed on this website are solely those of the author and do not represent the University's views.

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