ABC Notation


ABC is a free, alphabetically-based code to notate tunes in plain text format. You can use a simple word processing program such as notepad to create and save the coding. Pitches are indicated with letters (thus the name "ABC notation"). Once the tune is notated, the coding must be copied and pasted into another program to display it in staff format. There are several free web sites that offer this capability. This brief (and still in progress) introduction focuses on basic ABC coding and printing the music from the coding.

The coding || Displaying and printing in staff notation || Documentation and tutorials

The Coding
There are two parts to coding a tune in ABC notation: the header and the body.

The Header
The header includes fields that contain information about the tune or set up default options for the music. Fields such as title, meter, default length of note, and key are required. Other fields, such as notes, rhythm, etc. are optional. These elements look like this in ABC:

Title: Title is pretty straightforward. Just type it in!

This field is repeatable, which is helpful when a tune has more than one name. The first use of the field will generate the title as usual; the second will generate the alternative title in smaller print.

The title field can also be used within a tune itself to name parts of a tune. When used this way, the title field should precede the key field or meter field indicating changes in key or meter.

Meter: is entered
as a fraction: 6/8 3/4 2/2 2/4 4/4
or in letter form: C C| (cut time)

Length: the default note length is set automatically by the meter field, but it can be changed. Generally speaking, chose the note length that occurs most frequently in the tune being transcribed:
1/2 = half note
1/4 = quarter note
1/8 = eighth note
1/16 = sixteenth note

Key: use upper case letter to indicate key. To indicate mode:
upper case letter alone indicates that key in major:
upper case letter followed by lower case "m" indicates minor:
upper case letter followed by "Mix" indicates mixolydian mode:
upper case letter followed by "Dor" indicates dorian mode:
Am or Amin
= A major
= A minor
= A mixolydian
= A dorian

Other header elements are optional:
P:parts (used in the header to indicate the order in which the parts of the tune are played; e.g., P:ABAC, P:A, P:B)
Q:tempo (e.g., Q:200, Q:C2=200)
R:rhythm (e.g., R:R, R:reel)
S:source (e.g., S:collected in Brittany)
Z:transcription note


The Body
notes || note lengths || accidentals || bar lines, etc. || Multiple staves

Notes are entered using letters (thus the name "ABC notation"). The pitch is determined by the letter itself and the octave by case and punctuation.

Notes below middle C are upper case followed by a comma (G, A, B,)
Notes between middle C to the next B (3rd line of the staff) are upper case (C D E F G A B)
Notes from C in 3rd space of the staff to the next B (2nd space above the staff) are lower case (c d e f g a b)
Notes from C in 2nd line above the staff to the next B are lower case followed by an apostrophe (c' d' e' f' g')

G, A, B, C D E F G A B
c d e f g a b c' d' e' f' g'
Put together:


Bar lines, section ends, etc., are entered using a combination of the | and ] keys, using the colon to indicate repeats.
|   |]   ||   [|   :|   |:   :: will display as:


More advanced coding (do not attempt this at home until you feel proficient in ABC):

Multiple staves (see also voices)

For a two-staff work, precede each line with the voice number, e.g., [V:1], [V:2]:

T:Bottom of the Punchbowl
C:harmony by M. Koth
[V:1]|:FE|"D"D2A2d3c|d2A2 FGAF|"Em"E2 e2 efgf|"A"edcB AGFE|
[V:2]|:FE|D2F2A3e|f2d2 AGFA|B2e2 gfef|gfed cBAG|
[V:1]"D"D2 A2 d3 (e|fe)dc d3 (A|"G"Bc)d(B "A"AB)AG|"D"F2 D2 D2:|
[V:2]A2d2 f3 (e|fg)fe f3 (A|dc)B(d ed)cB|A2F2D2:|

Displaying and printing music from ABC notation

To convert ABC coding into printable staff notation, go to one of these websites:
ABC entry and conversion
abcConverter from mandolintab
Online ABC music formatting
ABC Player and Editor (no pdf generator but you can start the midi from a specific note)
ABC converter (from Colin Hume; can generate a PDF when you click on the print button)

Jens Wollschläger's ABC transposer (does not display or print a tune, but the ABC coding will be transposed; chords in quotation marks will also be changed, including their case and may need to be changed back to upper case)

ABC documentation and tutorials

abctab2ps user's guide
ABC documents by John Chambers:
   An introduction to ABC music notation
   An ABC primer
How to interpret ABC music notation by Steve Mansfield
List of ABC tutorials
The ABC of ABC
ABC music project
The ABC notation system by Chris Walshaw
Multivoice abc - can we all use the V: field? by Phil Taylor
The ABC Plus Project maintained by Guido Gonzato
ABC section of Music Notation Software