How to Create Sheet Music. Part 2. The ABC’s of Notation

ABC blocks
... as ABC?
ABC notation is simple.
Is A B C as easy ...

I discussed software for creating guitar tablature in my previous post, How to create sheet music. You can also create scores in standard musical notation from these programs. Some even allow entering notes directly on the staff instead of using tablature. As a guitarist, this may be all you ever need. But it isn’t the only option for creating musical scores. So why would you use something other than a tablature program to create a musical score? Here’s a few reasons I can think of but I’m sure there are others:

  • You want to create music for a non-fretted instrument such as a tin-whistle, a violin or a saxophone. Tablature is mostly for fretted instruments –  though it’s possible to use tablature software and direct score editing or virtual piano keyboard or virtual guitar entry to create music intended for other instruments.
  • Not only do you want to score for non-fretted instruments but you want to score multiple parts. Maybe for a string quartet. (Note that most of the tablature software I discussed previously allows for multi-part scores. However, the parts are presumed to be other fretted instruments such as a bass. The exception is the ability to add a drum part.)
  • You prefer to input the score in a way that gives you greater control of the note entry.
  • You are scoring for instruments that do not use the standard treble and bass clef staffs for notation.

There are a variety of approaches to entering music notation without using guitar tablature. I’m going to cover the ABC music notation in this post and cover LilyPond, MuseScore and others in future posts.

The ABC notation was developed by Chris Walshaw as a means to share traditional folk music such as Irish jigs. The intended instruments were traditional folk instruments such as a tin whistle or fiddle. The notation is in plain text which could be transmitted by email and read by a human. It was intended to be a simple notation system, editable and readable by humans. ABC is a musical notation standard and not a software package. All you need is a text editor or email client to create music in the ABC notation. However, there are software applications which work with the ABC notation.

A tune consists of a header which provides fields for title, composer, key signature, time signature and default note duration. The music is notated using the letters A to G to represent the notes. “C” is middle C. A lowercase “c” represents C above middle C. Simple and straightforward.

Some other notation directions:

  • Sharps and flats are indicating by preceding the note with a carrot ( ^ ) for sharp or an underscore (  _ ) for flat. A natural is an equal sign ( = ). Examples:
    F# notated as ^F
    Eb notated as _E
    Eb followed by E natural would be notated as  _E=E.
  • Notes beyond the range that can be indicated by an upper or lowercase letter are indicated by adding either an apostrophe ( ‘ ) or a comma ( , ) after the note to indicate higher or lower registers. Thus E below middle C is notated as E,
  • A default note duration can be set in the header or changed anywhere within the body but defaults to eighth notes if none is specified. Example: L:1/4 sets quarter notes as default duration.
  • Notes having longer or shorter durations than the current default are indicated by adding a multiplier after the note. If the default is eighth notes then C2 is a quarter note and C/2 is a sixteenth note.
  • Chord names are enclosed by quotes and precede the notes where the chord should be played. Examlpe: “Gmin7” G _B D E (The chord should appear above the G note).
  • Polyphonic notes in the score (i.e., chords) are notated in text by surrounding the notes with square brackets [ ]. Example: [G _B D E] (the notes in Gmin7).
  • ABC notation lines can be broken into multiple lines by ending the line with a back slash ( \ ). These will produce a single line in the score.

The ABC notation started as a simple notation system but has grown in popularity since its initial specification. Steve Allen (the original host of the Tonight Show, a comedian, musician and composer) registered the ABC standard as a mime media type for the internet in 1997. Since then ABC plus and ABC 2.0 have both attempted to extend the specification so more complex music can be scored with it. There are quite a few software packages that can either import or export music in the ABC notation, including some of the guitar tablature programs I discussed in “How to create sheet music”.

ABC was designed to be edited as plain text. However, in addition to programs that import or export the ABC notation, there are programs to edit ABC files, convert ABC to midi, to print ABC files in standard musical notation (usually as PDF or directly in postscript), to transpose ABC files to different keys and to manage collections of files in the ABC format.

I have tried two of these programs. ABCedit is free but requires you request a registration code from the author. ABCExplorer is a similar program. Both are written for Windows.

The following is an simplified example of an ABC file.

X:1 % The number of tunes in file. % indicates a comment
T:An Example of ABC Notation % title
L:1/8 % length of shortest note
K:C % key
“Cmaj7” [C E G B ]4 CEGB | “Fmaj7” [ F A c e ]4 FAce | \
“Bbmaj7” [ _B, F A d ]4 _B,FAd
L:1/4 % change the default duration to quarter notes
C _D D _E | E F ^F G | _A/2 A/2 _B2 | c4

… and this is the output from the above code using ABCedit:

Output produced by "An Example of ABC Notation"
Output produced by "An Example of ABC Notation"

One of the uses I’ve made of ABC notation is to transcribe a lead sheet with chords and then import it into a guitar tablature program to edit to be a guitar piece, perhaps in a different key. Although I could do this directly in TuxGuitar, I found I make fewer errors this way.

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