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How to interpret abc music notation - part 2

A tutorial by Steve Mansfield

Part one: The basics
Part two : the more advanced bits
Part three: The even more more advanced bits
An alphabetical index

Last revised : 14th August 2016


Elements in the tune body:
Ornaments and Grace Notes
Slurs and Ties
Triplets, quadruplets, and the various other tuplets
Chords and Unisons
Guitar chords
Line ends and line breaks
Fiddle bowing marks

Elements in the tune header:
Information fields in the tune header
Parts and voices
Song words

Comments in an abc file

Putting it all together
Order of symbols
All together now ...

Comparison of the various software packages

Thanks and other credits


But you've not mentioned ...

Back to the main site index


This page follows on from my introductory tutorial to the abc music notation system. The introductory tutorial, which starts from the absolute basics of abc and works through to being able to notate a simple melody, can be found be clicking on this link.

This second part of the tutorial assumes you are familiar with the basics of abc notation which are explained in the introductory tutorial, and extends the tutorial to cover other aspects of the notation standard. Some of this second tutorial is therefore, I readily admit, little more than a paraphrasing of the abc standard available on the abc homepage, although I hope I have added some extra value through added explanation or expansion.

For further information on abc, the various software packages available, and links to other abc sites and tune collections, go to the abc home page at

I would of course be extremely indebted to anyone who points out any errors of fact or interpretation in this tutorial: my email address is available here.

Still here? Good : off we go then ....

Elements in the tune body

Ornaments and grace notes

The general symbol for an ornament is the tilde ~.

The symbol is placed before the note to be ornamented, eg


Note that the tilde is a general mark to indicated the presence of an ornament, and does not specify a particular ornamentation - it is usually interpreted as a roll or a turn. For the more precise notation of ornamentation such as Great Highland Bagpipe music, and for the notation of particular grace notes, enclose the notes in curly brackets { } eg


The notes within curly brackets have no fixed time value, so their length cannot be modified by use of the usual symbols : in other words anything like {G2AG2D}, {GA/G/D/G}, or {GA>GD>G} is out of the question. The pitch of the notes is notated in the usual way, eg the octave modifiers , and ' are useable.

Slurs and Ties

The minus sign - should be used to tie two notes of equal pitch, whilst the round brackets () join two or more notes which are to be slurred, or played legato.

Two notes can be tied together with a minus sign - . This can be applied both within a bar and across bar lines, eg




are both correct. The tie marking should be placed immediately after a note, but can be followed by a space.

To slur a group of notes or join them together as a phrase , use round brackets ( ) to enclose the grouped notes, eg


Spaces can be used within the slur to improve the legibility of the file. However the first and last notes, (including any pitch and/or length markings) should be placed hard up against the beginning and ending brackets. So

(^G A B/c/|E4 D4)

is correct, but ( ^G A B/c/|E4 D4 ) is well wide of the mark.

It's also worth mentioning that you can 'nest' slurs inside each other, so that a passage of music finishing with a tied note can be shown either as

(D E F (G | G4))


(D E F G-| G4)

are both understood.

Triplets, quadruplets, and the various other tuplets

The basic notation for duplets, triplets, quadruplets etc. is straightforward : an opening round bracket, the number, and the notes within the tuplet eg

Duplet (2GA
Triplet (3GAB
Quadruplet (4GABA

and so on, up to


Note that there are no spaces in the tuplet.

The values of the particular tuplets are (to quote the abc specification)

(2 2 notes in the time of 3
(3 3 notes in the time of 2
(4 4 notes in the time of 3
(5 5 notes in the time of n
(6 6 notes in the time of 2
(7 7 notes in the time of n
(8 8 notes in the time of 3
(9 9 notes in the time of n

n is 3 in compound time signatures (3/4, 3/8, 9/8 etc), and 2 in simple time signatures (C, 4/4, 2/4 etc.)

Warning : this next section is not as bad as it first looks. There are however some people - me for example - who are allergic to anything resembling algebraic equations: such readers may wish to click here now.

For more complicated notation of irregular rhythmic episodes, abc allows for the use of the form



p = the number of notes to be put into time q
q = the time that p notes will be played in
r = the number of notes to continue to do this action for.

If q is not specified, it defaults to 3 in compound time signatures and 2 in simple time signatures. If r is not specified, it is taken to be the same as p.

This comes into play when notating notes of different lengths within a tuplet eg




and explains exactly what is going on in situations such as


- which is the same as putting


Chords and Unisons

Chords for guitars etc. can be found here.

Chords within a melody, eg what classical Western notation would show as multiple note heads on a single stem, are shown in abc by enclosing the notes in square brackets [ ]. There should be no spaces within the chord, length and pitch modifiers can be included as required, and it is a convention to state the notes of the chord in ascending order, eg


Chords can be arranged to form beamed groups using spaces in the same way that individual notes are, eg

[GB][Ac] [B2d2] | [Bd][Ac] [G2B2]

The syntax for chords can be used to notate more than one part in a single line of music - and in that case, or in cases where two strings play the same note, it will occasionally be necessary to notate a unison (eg both parts playing a note of the same pitch and length). Software which generates classical Western notation from abc will show unisons eg
as a note with both an upwards and a downwards stem.

Guitar chords

Chords for accompanying instruments can be shown in abc using double quotation marks " " eg


The chord should appear before the first note of the section of melody which the chord applies to, eg

"G"GB d2 | "D"DF A2

Chords take the format

note accidental type / bass


note A to G
accidental # or b
type m, min, maj, sus, dim, +, 7, 9, 11,#5, etc. etc
/ bass Bass note

accidental, type, and / bass are all optional.

You may occasionally come across an abc file which uses the older abc style of denoting guitar chords, by surrounding them with addition signs +Gm+ : more recent versions of the abc specification specify the use of the "Gm" style, so please do your chords like that.

Line ends and line breaks

In software which generates standard Western notation from abc, the general rule is that one line of abc will generate one line of tadpoles-hanging-on-five-barred-gates.

Most packages will however 'wrap' the staff of music onto the next line if your printed page width isn't big enough.

To try to insist that two lines of abc notation make one line of tadpoles, put a back slash
at the end of the first line. Again, this may be over-ridden by the software if you run out of space.

The other common symbol often seen used in marking line breaks is an exclamation mark
placed at the end of a line of abc, to force the software generating the standard Western notation to start a new line. This is specific to one particular piece of abc software and is not actually a formal part of the abc notation specification, but (as so many abc files are generated in this particular software package, ABC2Win) it is worth mentioning here.

Fiddle bowing marks

Up-bow and down-bow marks for fiddlers can be indicated by the letters u (up-bow) and v (down-bow), eg



If you want to indicate that a particular note should be played staccato, place a dot . before the note, eg


or even

.G.A._B.c .d2.e.d.^c

For further accents and symbols available, see the accents section here.

Information fields in the tune header

As seen in the first part of this tutorial, the tune header contains a number of fields giving information about the tune such as title, rhythm, key signature, etc. The introductory tutorial mentioned the fields which must be shown in the tune header, and also described some of the optional information fields which are most commonly used.

The abc specification allows for many more optional descriptive or information fields to be used in the tune header - the full list is :

A: (Geographical) Area : eg A:Brittany or A:Sussex
B: Book, eg B:Encyclopeadia Blowzabellica or B:O'Neill's
C: Composer eg C:Andy Cutting or C:Trad
D: Discography eg D:New Victory Band, One More Dance And Then
F: File Name eg
G: Group eg G:Flute - this is used for the purpose of indexing tunes in software, NOT for naming the group / band you acquired the tune from (which should be recorded in the S: source field).
H: History - Multiple H: fields may be used as needed to record text about the history of the tune. (Many people (including me) seem to tend to forget about the H: field and instead always put information like that in the N: notes field instead.)
I: Information - used by certain software packages, NOT for historical information or notes (which should be recorded in the H: or N: fields).
K: Key -see part one of this tutorial for further details
L: Default note length -see part one of this tutorial for further details
M: Meter :see part one of this tutorial for further details
N: Notes : Multiple N: fields can be used as needed to record detailed text notes about, well, just about anything you want to say about the tune that won't go in any of the other fields really ...
O: (Geographical) Origin : eg O:Irish or O:Swedish
P: Parts -see below for further details
Q: Tempo -see part one of this tutorial for further details
R: Rhythm -see part one of this tutorial for further details
S: Source - where you got the tune from eg S:Olio or S:Dave Praties
T: Title -see part one of this tutorial for further details
W: Words -see below for further details
X: Tune reference number -see part one of this tutorial for further details
Z: Transcription note - the identity of the transcriber or the source of the transcription, eg Z:Steve Mansfield

To repeat a small part of the first part of this tutorial:

The X: index, T: title, M: meter, L: default note length, and K: key field are obligatory : the others are optional.

The fields usually occur in the following order:
[optional fields]

And immediately following the K: field on the next line is the body of the tune, eg the representation of the notes of the melody.


This section deals with the parts of a melody, eg the introduction, A part, B part etc. The syntax is also available in abc for notating parts as in part-singing, harmony parts etc., eg multiple voices : click here for further details.

Parts can be indicated in the P: field in the tune header to indicate what order the parts of the tune are played in for both human and computer players, eg


The body of the tune will then contain corresponding markers at the start of each part eg


Note that the declaration in the header, showing the order of parts, can be abbreviated using brackets eg


can be shown as


and dots can be added to improve legibility, eg


Song words

The W: field (upper case W) in the header can be used as many times as needed to record the entire words of the song as a block of text eg

W:How much is that doggie in the window
W:The one with the waggly tail?
W:How much is that doggie in the window
W:I do hope that doggie's for sale
(etc. etc.)

This form of notating the song words will produce the words as a single text block below the tune, if the abc file is fed into a software package which generates standard Western notation.

Song words can also be aligned with the individual notes of the melody, as described her in the third part of this tutorial.

Comments in an abc file

To include comments, notes, anecdotes, copyright notices etc. in your abc file (as opposed to using the N: and H: fields in a particular tune), use a percentage % symbol eg

%This file was downloaded from

a % at the start, or in the middle of, a line will cause everything to the right of the % symbol to be treated as comments by both human and computer abc readers.

Note that some software packages take advantage of this syntax to place software-specific messages in the body of an abc tune - these can usually be distinguished by the human eye as they start with a double percentage sign eg %%.

Putting it all together

1) The order of symbols

If (for the sake of argument) you want to use many or all of the features available for use in the tune body on one note, which order should they appear in?

The order is :

Guitar chords accents accidental note octave marker note length modifier

The abc specification gives


as an example, and I think that states the point perfectly.

2) All together now ...

T:Plead for Slough
T:Speed The Plough (arr.)
H:Illustrative file for abc tutorial
N:The tune that should be the English national anthem,
N:renamed in this version in honour of the John Betjeman poem
C:Trad.arr. Steve Mansfield June 2000
P:(2A2B)ad infinitum
Z:Steve Mansfield 6/6/2000
"G" (GAB)c dedB | "G" .d.e.d.B dedB |
"Am" c2ec "D7" B2dB | "D"A2"Dm"A2 "Am" A2BA |
"G" (GABc d)edB | "G" .d.e.d.B dedB | "C" ~c2ec "G" ~B2dB- |
"D7" BA A2 "G" ~G4 ::
"C" g2g2 {GABcdef}g4 | "G" g2fe dBGB |
"Am" cAEc "Bm"BGDB | "F#m"A2A2 "D"A4 |
"C"g2g2 "G"g4 | "G"g2fe dBGB |
"C" (5cdedc "Am" ec"Bm"B2"~G"dB |
"A"[A2c2]"Am"[A2a2] "G"[G4B4d4g4] :|

Comparison of the various software packages

Having read my abc tutorials, people occasionally email me to ask "What is the best abc software package?"

And my answer is always a clear and unequivocal

"Well ... that depends really".

The abc notation system is, of course, not tied to computer software at all - many a perfectly good piece of abc notation has been scribbled down on the back of a beermat in the middle of a crowded music session, using nothing more hi-tech than a pen borrowed off of a friend. My objective in writing these tutorials has been to teach how abc itself works.

The best abc software package is the one which works best for you. What that is depends on all sorts of factors, such as -

One of the great joys of abc is that the majority of the software packages are shareware, so you can try before you buy. Once you decide on the package or packages that work for you, please register them - nobody is getting rich from supporting abc, none of the packages are expensive, and all software registrations are encouragement to the author(s) for past efforts, present value, and further developments.

There is a list of software packages for abc at the abc home page,

Thanks and other credits

Thanks for this second page of the tutorial go to Lynn Chivers and Richard Peach of the abc-enabled ceilidh band Olio for alpha-testing: a part of the credit for the accuracy of this tutorial go to them, whilst responsibility is all mine for all remaining examples of poor speling, erroneous explanation and sheer wilful obscurity.

For more thanks, conditions of use, and an explanation as to why I wrote all this in the first place, please see the thanks on the introductory page.

But you've not mentioned ...

Since the main body of this tutorial was written the abc standard has moved on, and various additional pieces of syntax have been added. Some of these extensions (the selection is pretty much an arbritary group of 'ones I've found useful' and 'ones I think people reading this tutorial might find useful') are described in part three of this tutorial, which is to be found here.

The full abc specification document is available by following this link to

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This tutorial © copyright Steve Mansfield 2000 - present.