ABC is a way of coding a tune score (aka ‘the dots’) in the form of keyboard characters. Its original purpose was to enable lots of tunes to be sent in a small file size by email, but the advent of quite sophisticated software editing programs offers many other advantages to the folk musician. You can find these files all over the web, but a good place to start is abcnotation.com which is the site hosted by the man who invented it, Chris Walshaw, and which has over 500,000 tunes (and counting). It’s also the place to learn more about how to write and edit tunes in this format should you be interested, and find links to software and lots more.
Why is ABC so good? Well, not everybody can read music competently, so it’s an excellent way of quickly enabling you to listen to a tune, and you’ll find that being able to do this and look at the dots will improve your sight-reading skills too.
So, once you have your (usually free) software installed, you first need to grab your ABC code: here’s what Speed The Plough looks like:
T:Speed The Plough
Z:Revision March 2011
|:”G”GABc dedB|dedB dedB|”C”c2 ec “G”B2 dB|1″D”c2 A2 A4:|2″D”c2 A2″G”G4|
“G”g2g2g4|”C”g2 fe “G”d4|”C”c2 ec “G”B2 dB |1″D”c2A2A4:|2″D” c2A2″G”G4|
Having found the tune, copy and paste its code into your editor, and hey presto, the score appears instantly. You can then listen to the tune – if chords have been added most editors will play the accompaniment as well. Other options include generating a PDF copy for printing, or adding other tunes to make sets, or creating a tunebook, and lots more.
The various ABC software editors have their pros and cons: I’ve used both EasyABC and ABCExplorer, both of which are free. EasyABC is available for both Windows and Mac and has a simple interface (see above); the latest version can be downloaded here. ABCExplorer is a bit more complicated but has some extra features. The abcnotation site has a comprehensive list of other ABC software.
Tradmusician is an excellent tool for viewing and playing ABC files on an Android device.