ABC: low-cost music notation tools for church musicians

ABC notation is a way of writing musical scores, using only letters (a, b, c, etc), numbers and other text characters which were available on the non-graphical computers of the 1980s.

It's popular because it's free;   the ABC standard (ie rules about how to write it) is freely available and many of the programs for working with ABC were and are free too.

And being text-based, ABC code can be written with any note-pad or text-editor.

What can you do with it

Initially, ABC was simply a very compact text-friendly way of sending written-down tunes by computer or sharing them on the internet.

As computers started working with pictures, people wrote programs that could take text-based ABC notation and draw conventional Western music scores, as either picture files (.jpg, .bmp) or as PDF files. This, combined with the ability to transpose music using abc-editor programs, make it into a very useful tool for making sheet music.

And as the numbers using ABC notation grew, people started sharing collections of songs and tunes written in ABC on the internet.

Many people who used ABC-noation first were writing down Western folk tunes, not sacred music, so this is the genre for many of the on-line ABC libraries. However there is some cross-over with folk-tunes that have been "baptized", and sacred tunes that have been adopted into popular culture to the extent that some people consider them to be "folk" music. And today there is no reason why ABC notation could not be used as the basis for a collection of religious music.

But is ABC music notation still used today?

There is now another "open" standard for writing music-notation in text, and this is MusicXML. Many of the commercial music-engraving programmes (eg Sibelius, Finale) are able to use and share music stored in this format, although the programs themselves are generally expensive commercial products. (One notable exception is MuseScore which is open-source and freely available.)

But there is one major limitation: XML-based music (or any other XML) is not easy for humans to read.  In fact, it would be pretty much impossible to look at a piece of XML and play from it.

For example, look at the difference in text needed to write a score showing a single whole note middle C in the key of C major on the Treble Clef with 4/4 time., as shown in the picture on the right:

Example in XML, using the MusicXML schema standard

<?xml version="1.0" encoding="UTF-8" standalone="no"?>
<!DOCTYPE score-partwise PUBLIC
    "-//Recordare//DTD MusicXML 3.0 Partwise//EN"
<score-partwise version="3.0">
    <score-part id="P1">
  <part id="P1">
    <measure number="1">

Example in ABC, using standard ABC notation

C4 ||

What's more, ABC notation doesn't mind extra spaces - so it can be used to write down tunes in a way that makes it efasy to see the structure, repetitions and variations, provided you use a non-proportional font like Courier.   For example:


T:Sussex Carol





d|d2 B c2 d | BA G  A2 |

  FG2G AB c | B2 A1 G2 |

d|d2 B c2 d | BA G  A2 |

  FG2G AB c | B2 A1 G3 |

"^Chorus" A3 A2 G | AB c d c B |   A6 |

          d3 e3   | d3 c2  B   | AG AG2|]

Therefore ABC notation and the free ABC tools are an excellent choice for the cost-conscious church musician who needs to write down relatively simple music that people can read easily - and it works well for not-so-simple music, too.

They also good for people with limited formal music education who find it difficult to learn to read "the dots", especially those who prefer chord charts but would like them to show a little more information about a tune.

Useful tools for working with ABC Notation

ABCExplorer is one ABC editing tool, whose features include suggesting chord patterns.

EasyABC is another ABC editor, which imports MusicXML, MIDI and Noteworthy Composer files, and generates ABC files from them. ABC Convert-a-matic is an on-line conversion tool which will take a piece of music in ABC-notation and convert it to regular sheet music in a printable document format. has another converter (previously called folkinfo), which produces .svg and .png files (SVG is a format which scales nicely to any size you want)

The website has an extensive list of on-line libraries of (mainly folk) music in ABC notation.  It also has the full specification and formal definition of ABC notation, and various tutorials.

Some more detailed information about special characters:

Quick-reference guide to key ABC music notation features for church-musicians

Note:   This is not a full list of ABC commands.   It's simply a quick summary of some items that I've needed to look up often when writing up scores of religious music.

Tune header

Every ABC-format file must have a header which has the basic information about the tune.   The fields in this are:
X:1 (Must be first, can be any whole number- it has no meaning in most ABc management tools today)
T: title of the tune, put itsecond
M: time signature (ie meter)
L: unit note (eg 1/8 or 1/4)
C: composer or source
Z: transcriber
N: notes  (can be repeated)
K: key signature, eg G, Bm, Ab, put it last

Notes and rests:

A B C ... G: for the octove from middle C up
a b c ... g: for the octave from high C up
x, Note X, one octave down (x may be any of a b c ... g or A B C ... G)
x' Note X, one octave up (ditto)

z a rest - and the length of these can be changed in the same way as notes (see below)

y extra padding or space

^ before a note to make it sharp
_ before a note to make it flat
# before a note to make it natural

Note lengths:

x2 a note which is twice the usual length
x3/2 a dotted note, ie which is (3 / 2 = ) 1.5 times the usual length
xN a note which is N times the usual length

X>Y a slurred note: the first one is 3/4 of the total time value, the 2nd is 1/4 of the total time value

(3 = make the following three notes a triplet

Ties and slurs:
Slurs - put the notes (inside curved brackets)
Ties - put a dash between the notes   (eg   B-B), even across a bar-line

Bars, parts and repeats:

| end of a bar
|| end of a part
|] end of the work
|: start of a repeat
:| end of a repeat
(1 ... (2 ... :| the first and second endings of a repeated piece. CHECK NOTATION

Lyrics, guitar chords and added information:

w: words below the individual line of music
W: words below the entire score (ie with an UpperCase W)
~ run two words together on the same note
- break a word across notes (like paragraphs)
_ hold a word across notes (an underscore character

"X" Put a chord of X above the note

"^text" Put "text" above the note   (eg  "^Chorus"A  to say "Chorus" above the A note)

Multiple voices or parts - header section

%%score (1 2) (3 4)
V:1 clef=treble name="Sop"
V:2 clef=treble name="Alto"

Multiple voices or parts - in the tune body

[V:1] ... notes for this voice
[V:2] ... notes for this voice
(can have any number of voices, named with numbers or text)

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