Body Large (20/130%/14)
Body Large (20/130%/14) #2

Using abc Notation for Writing Out Fiddle Tunes

About abc Notation II ~ Overview & Tune Header

On this page we look at how abc notation actually works, including an overview of the parts of an abc document. Then we look at the tune header; on the next page we'll look at the body of the tune.

This is a very quick introduction to the workings of abc notation. For more detail, check out the abc Home Page, maintained by its inventor Chris Walshaw.

We'll use the tune Smash the Windows as an example for this introduction.


Links to Related Pages



The abc document: Overview

Before looking at the tune header I want to give you the big picture of abc tunes.

The music code. The abc code for the melody and chords are found in the tune body. Sometimes formatting commands are found there too, e.g. to indicate a key change.

Tune characteristics & formatting. There’s more to the music than melody and chords. The software needs to know tune characteristics such as key and time signature. It also needs to know how we want it drawn (e.g. font and font size for the title, composer and other type, spacing between staff systems, margins, and more. This is done in the headers. There are a few types of headers, each serving different functions.

  • The tune header begins the tune. It contains a set of  information statements describing the tune (e.g. its name, time signature, key). This is discussed in detail below.
  • The document file header is an optional section that appears at the beginning of an abc document, or sometimes as a separate format file. It consists of a set of formatting commands (e.g. for the fonts to be used, their size, spacing, etc.). It applies to all abc tunes in a document.
  • The tune file header is an optional set of formatting commands placed immediately before a tune. In documents containing multiple tunes, it affects only the next tune.

These days many people get tunes from abc search web sites such as JC's Tune Finder or the search page of abc Home Page. These are great because they let you find tunes easily and make it easy to compare different transcripts of a tune. But the abc code may not be complete. As the file headers are separate from the code for a tune they are almost certainly going to be lost.

For that reason, on this web site the Headers Page has the information needed to recreate the headers, and all tunes contain links to that page in the tune header which, as part of the tune, shouldn’t get lost.

Now let's take a closer look at the tune body and header. We'll start with the tune header.

The tune header

An abc tune starts out with the tune header  which gives the title, key and other important information. That might take the following form:



T:Smash The Windows

T:Roaring Jelly





Here's what that means:

  • X:1 ~ The X: field provides a number by which to identify the tune.
  • T:Smash The Windows ~ The T: field is for the title. If a tune has more than one commonly known title, a second line of the T: field gives the second title.
  • M:6/8 ~ The M: field is for the meter.
  • L:1/8 ~ The L: field is for the default note length. Each note is represented by a letter. This is the length a note will have if it has no number next to it to modify the length.
  • R:Jig ~ The R: field is for rhythm. It can be used to give the abc interpreter software some hints about how the tune should be played.
  • K: ~ The K: field identifies the key of the tune.
    • The key may be specified in terms of the mode as well.  For example, Amin for minor, Ddor for Dorian.

The abc standard designates the K: field to be the end of the tune header.

There are many other characteristics that can be included optionally in the header; it's even possible to add Postscript commands for greater control over the output.

On the next page we look at the tune body, which is where the actual tune lives. Click on the "Next Page" button for discussion of the tune body.


abc Codexx
Tune Links (16, indented)