the abc musical notation language

This is a copy of Chris Walshaw's ABC home page. The original (and most up-to-date version) is at:

Page last updated 10 August 1999


[une traduction partielle (en français) de cette page peut être trouvée ici]


abc is a language designed to notate tunes in an ascii 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 is extendible to many other types of music and recently Steve Allen has coded Beethoven's Symphony No. 7, Movement 2 in abc! Since its introduction at the end of 1991 it has become very popular and there now exist several PC and UNIX based tools which can read abc notation and either process it into staff notation or play it through the speakers of a computer.

One of the most important aims of abc notation, and perhaps one that distinguishes it from most, if not all, computer-readable musical languages is that it can be easily read 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. Even if this isn't of interest, the resulting clarity of the notation makes it fairly easy to notate tunes. In addition, the ability to write music in abc notation means that it can be easily and portably stored or transported electronically hence enabling the discussion and dissemination of music via email.

As an example the tune Paddy O'Rafferty would be written out as

T:Paddy O'Rafferty
dff cee|def gfe|dff cee|dfe dBA|dff cee|def gfe|faf gfe|1 dfe dBA:|2 dfe dcB||
~A3 B3|gfe fdB|AFA B2c|dfe dcB|~A3 ~B3|efe efg|faf gfe|1 dfe dcB:|2 dfe dBA||
fAA eAA|def gfe|fAA eAA|dfe dBA|fAA eAA|def gfe|faf gfe|dfe dBA:|

After processing a typical result might look like this (using abc2mtex):

further examples

abc notation - standards, new developments and history

To find out about how to use the notation have a look at the abc standard V1.6 which describes the (simple) rules of abc (although note that this was written by Chris Walshaw for abc2mtex and so doesn't include some of the extensions found in other packages) [une traduction (en français) de cette page peut être trouvée ici]. A version of the standard has since been developed in BNF format by Henrik Norbeck and abc has been registered as a MIME type by Steve Allen which may help in triggering the development of Web Browser Plug-Ins which can process abc files. A new version of the standard is under discussion on the abcusers mail list and a draft revised standard is available. A short history of abc is also available together with a chronology of developments in the software.


... a FAQ put together by John Chambers.

abcusers mail list

... a mailing list intended as a forum for discussing the abc notation and the software tools to handle abc.

abc software packages

The packages which support abc notation can be found at the following sites:

abc collections

There are now a large number of abc-notated tunes available on the internet (mostly folk & traditional). Have a look at (in no particular order):

Mail me if you want to add your collection to this list.

the web-wide abc index

(WARNING: over 0.9 Mbyte; the sectionalised web-wide abc index is available in bite-sized chunks.)

The idea of the web-wide abc index is to collect together a central list of all abc tune collections on the web. A simple way of using the index is to search through the tune names using your favourite web browsers search facility. You can click on the file code to take you straight to the desired file. Alternatively you can download the thematic index and use the tools provided by indexabc to search for tunes beginning with a certain sequence of notes.

The file codes I use in the index can be found here. I haven't indexed all the internet collections as many are based around one tune per file (and it would take forever to download them all). If you want a collection included in the index, just mail me the abc file(s) and the URL of where it can be found on the web. Note also that I don't index files with a .htm or .html suffix (for reasons why not see the abc-faq and search for suffix).

abc international

The multinational abc software conglomerate.

Products shortly to be released from abc international:

all of which combine into one mega package: Out on the shelves as soon as I get my head together: And for the singers among you:

further information (polite notice)

If you have more questions about abc probably the best thing to do is to join the abcusers mail list and post a question there. Alternatively you could post a question to some of the related newsgroups (such as or mail lists (such as irtrad-l) where a lot of abc users hang out. Questions about specific abc software packages should go the author of the package (not to me - except for abc2mtex). Requests to include collections of tunes on this page or in the web-wide index should come to me, but please note that I don't make other peoples collections available from my web page so you should send me the internet address of the collection (the URL) rather than the collection itself. Finally, I find I am increasingly busy these days and abc tends to come at the very bottom of the priority list :-( ... unfortunately this means that I sometimes don't get round to replying to abc related mail for months. Sorry.

Chris Walshaw

Access count is since 3rd June 1997
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