Wednesday, July 16, 2008

Learning My ABC's

When I first started trying to learn how to play the fiddle, I had tons of sheet music but little knowledge of how to make it work, so when I wanted to learn how to play a piece, I would sometimes search the internet. While I couldn't always find an actual recording, I often came across midi files, especially in conjunction with ABC files. I think most of us understand that a midi file is computer generated music, but what on earth is an ABC file (or ABC notation)?

It's a small text file that looks like this.

X: 1
T:Boys of Bluehill
K:D Major
dB|BAFA DAFA|BA (3Bcd e2de|fagf egfe|dfed B2dB|!
BAFA DAFA|BA (3Bcd e2de|fagf egfe|d2dc d2:|!
fg|afdf a2gf|gfga b2ag|fagf egfe|dfed B2dB|!
BAFA DAFA|BA (3Bcd e2de|fagf egfe|d2dc d2:|!
I obtained the above file by going to this ABC Search Engine where I typed in "Boys of Bluehill" and was presented with a list of 178 iterations of the tune. Many of these would be the identical, but some would be slightly different, and others (if I were to go the trouble of seriously checking) might vary more significantly.

You'd be forgiven for wondering about the value of the above information. What does |BAFA DAFA| mean, for example? Well, that cryptic information can automatically be converted to sheet music as below where |BAFA DAFA| is the first full measure.

Well, that's somewhat useful, but wait there's more! A midi file is also generated in case you want to hear the notes. Of course, it won't distinguish amongst jig, hornpipe and reel rhythms, but it can still prove useful, especially if I already have a piece of music that you'd like to hear before trying to play.

Sometimes, I can't quite find a variation that matches what I already have in a book. In that case, I can copy the ABC's that they give me at the Tune Finder Site, go from there to the ABC Converter site, paste the ABC information, make my own adjustments for my particular variation, click Submit, and generate a new midi file as well as sheet music if I need it.

It's really quite wonderful what they can do with a tiny text file. It would require a ton of drive space to archive the actual sheet music and midi files for so many tunes, but by using this method of storing a tiny text file and converting it as needed it's easy to compile and share tunes. Whoever thought of it was pretty darn clever. I don't know if there is much beyond traditional tunes that has been put into this format, but feel free to explore the ABC Search Engine to your heart's content.

If you are interested in looking into the nuts and bolts of ABC notation, just go to this tutorial at LeSession.


Pearl said...

Handy software.

Ruth said...

Interesting. I use the internet frequently for finding chords for songs. At first I thought this was a type of chord notation. But a fiddle requires different music than a guitar or keyboard.

Janet said...

I'm going to check this out - I bet it would be handy for some piano playing as well. I knew what it was, but I'd hate to have to learn how to play like that. I've been reading music for 40 years, so now I just think that way.