ABC Music Notation: Note Lengths

by John Chambers
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Note Lengths

In addition to saying what note to play, you need to say how long the note is. ABC does this by simply putting a number after the note. The number can be an integer or a fraction, and means to multiply the default length by that much. You can't combine an integer and a fraction; you must use a simple fraction. So 1-1/2 would be written as 3/2.

For example, A2 is an A played twice as long as just A, and A3/2 is an A played 50% longer than A.

In fractions, a numerator of 1 and a denominator of 2 can be ommitted. So A1/2, A/2 and A/ all mean the same thing, an A half as long as just A.

There is a useful length abbreviation: The characters < and > between two notes mean to take away half of one note's length and give it to the other, with < meaning "short+long" and > meaning "long+short". Thus c>d means the same as c3/2d1/2 (or c3/d/). You can also repeat these characters, using << and >> for double-dotted note pairs.

Warning: This dotted-note notation is only defined between two notes of equal length. If you use it between notes with different lengths, the result is not defined, and ABC programs may misinterpret your intent.

Here is a simple test case, which is not very musical, but illustrates various ways to indicate unit note lengths.

X: 5
K: C
[| D D2 D3 D4 D6 | d d/ d3/ d3/4 d7/8 | EF/G//A// BA1/2G1/4F/4 \
| E>D C<D E>>F G>>A| B2>c2 d2>>c2 |]

This comes out on paper as:
note lengths

Some things to notice about ABC's note-length notation:

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Copyright 2001, 2002 by John Chambers