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  3. Fiddle Tunes - Index, abc

  4. The Tunes, PDF Format

  5. abc Musical Notation

  6. Peter’s abc Help File

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There are many ways of sharing fiddle tunes over the internet. Ideally we might want to send each other actual recordings of tunes, but those take up a lot of hard drive space, take a long time to download, and frequently involve legal issues. Thus, written notation is a convenient alternative.

This page gives an introduction to one of the best ways of sharing written music: abc musical notation.

Introduction: What it is and How to Use it. The abc notation system is a method of writing out music as plain text. It was invented by Chris Walshaw in the 1993.  An abc music file can then be interpreted by a computer program which can display it as standard musical notation, print it out, and play it on your computer’s speakers. Because abc files are plain text they can be exchanged between computers using any operating system. Tunes can be sent in the body of e-mail messages; they don’t need to be attachments; they’re also small and download quickly. They can be edited in any word processor, although an abc reader is best because you can then play it back for purposes of proofreading.

  1. Please note: I have heard people comment that they don’t like abc notation because they can’t read it and prefer to read standard notation. This is a misunderstanding:  you aren’t supposed to read abc notation. The abc notation is translated by an abc reader into standard musical notation or into a midi file which you can listen to.

Because it’s so convenient abc notation has become practically the default format for writing out fiddle tunes. It’s nearly perfectly suited for writing out a melody line with chord symbols. Although it doesn’t give you quite as much formatting flexibility as more conventional music composition programs, the advantages generally outweigh the disadvantages.

Pitch is indicated by the letters A-G, with lower-case or upper-case letters (and if necessary punctuation). Duration is indicated by numbers. There are provisions for indicating keys, tune type, timing, and all the common elements of a tune.

Some Useful abc Information and Links. There are literally thousands of tunes on the internet available in abc notation. I’ve provided music for some of the  tunes we play at our jam session on this web site and also for some other tunes I think are of interest. Elsewhere you’ll find music for lots more tunes! Here are some particularly useful links. Note 1: If you find any errors here, or have any ideas for improving this page, please get in touch at <peter dot yarensky at unh dot edu>; I’m happy to incorporate any improvements that seem worthwhile. Note 2: All links open in the same window. To keep this window showing and open the link in a new window, hold down the <Control> key while clicking on the link and choose “Open Link in New Window”.

  1. Finding/Using Existing abc Music.

JC's ABC Tune Match. John Chamber’s Tune Finder contains a huge database of tunes in abc format. Type in some or all of the title of a tune and you’ll often get back many different versions of the tune. Check them out and see which is closest to how you know it. His web site will also translate the abc into different formats including PDF, midi (to play the tune back for you) and various graphic formats, with various options available. PDF is best for printing.

ABC Convert-A-Matic. The concertina.net web site has various interesting stuff on it; one useful thing is a page where you can paste in any tune in abc format and it will convert it to either  PDF file or a MIDI file that you can play. Pretty neat!

Folkinfo abc Converter. Another online converter, very similar. This one uses abcm2ps, so you can expect publication-quality output.

  1. Understanding/Learning abc Notation.

abc Home Page. This is the official home page for abc notation from Chris Walshaw who invented the format. As of November 2006 it has a new web address and it’s been redesigned and made easier to use in various ways. It contains a thorough explanation of abc musical notation, links to many sources of tunes in abc format, to abc software, and lots more. Be sure to check out the various links on the page (e.g. “Further Examples”, “abc standard V1.6”, “abc-faq”); there’s a lot of information on that site.

An ABC primer. John Chambers put together a nice introduction to abc that should get you started with abc.

ABC Tutorial. This is John Chambers’ “longwinded, experimental” more detailed discussion of abc notation. It’s incomplete, but some parts are quite interesting. I particularly like the section on readability.

abcusers. The abc User’s Group on Yahoo. It’s an internet list for people who use abc notation and for the people who write the software. Activity ranges from minimal to several messages/day, usually low volume, and it can be interesting and useful.

Peter's abc Help File. This is a summary I made up for my own use when writing out abc notation. it’s a quick listing of details I’m likely to want to look up while writing out a tune. I’m including it here since it seems likely others would want to look up similar details.

  1. The Software.

There are lots of software choices available. Most are either free or inexpensive shareware software. The abc Home Page listed above has a pretty thorough description of the choices. What you use depends on if you have a Mac or a PC, and if you’re primarily interested in using existing abc files (see above), composing, printing or playing. Here are some suggestions to get you started.

If you use a Mac:

BarFly. Phil Taylor’s excellent program for composing, viewing and playing abc music files. It’s probably about the best abc program around as far as I can tell. It’s $25 shareware; please pay as I doubt that he makes a whole lot of money from the program and it’s well worth it! BarFly can do printing too, but it has a handy Export command which allows you to send files to abcm2ps to create typeset-quality postscript files (by default “out.ps”) which will appear in your home folder. Double-clicking will open them in Preview which will convert them to PDF files; save the PDF file under any name you want to wherever you want it.

abcm2ps. There’s a lot of other interesting stuff at this web site by the way. There’s been an attempt to standardize a version 2.0 of abc for a few years which hasn’t succeeded for various reasons; this web site represents an important attempt at extending abc, even if not yet official and standardized. The abcm2ps program is described above. Scroll down to the Mac OS X package, download it, and install it. It’s invisible; you’ll only see it when you use it from BarFly. It then works through Terminal. But it’s easy to use. If you want there are a few options you can adjust through BarFly’s dialog box. I haven’t used all. You can change the size of notes on the staff through the scale factor, the name of the file created in the “Output file name” field (change “out” to something more descriptive like “tune”)’ and there are other choices that are probably fairly obvious.

If you use a PC:

The choices are more complicated for PC users. There are more abc programs available, but none really seem to be quite as nice a combination as BarFly and abcm2ps on the Mac. I haven’t used any of them, so this is based on what I’ve gathered from talking to people. Look on the abc Home Page for more choices.

ABCedit. This sounds good; it integrates abcm2ps, abc2midi and GhostView in one package and is supposed to be easy to use, so it should provide good playback and printing. It seems to be popular among PC users on the abc user’s group.

abcm2ps. This program is available for PCs as well. I don’t know how easy it is to use, but it would produce great output.

Note: Please report any broken links or give me feedback on this web site through the Feedback Page.


abc Musical Notation &

Links to Software & Informational Sites


T:Golden Boy

C:Andy De Jarlis

N:as played in New Hampshire




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