About ABC

I’ve referenced the ABC module a number of times over the years on this blog, but I don’t think I’ve ever properly explained it. I think it’s particularly relevant with the recurring discussions going on about Perl 6’s “production readiness”, because at this point the abc2ly.pl script in the module is a productive tool I am using on a regular basis. One that would have been harder to write in almost any other programming language, I should add.

ABC format is a designed to make it very easy to enter single-line music. It’s designed to be a terse ASCII representation of the music, and it’s absolutely terrific for notating jigs and reels and things like that. Here’s an example ABC hornpipe:

T:Two Weeks To Wait
C:Solomon Foster
GF|:E2GB AGFA|(3Bcd ed gedB|A2GB ABGA|BgdB A2BG|
E2GB AGFA|(3Bcd ed gedB|A2GB ABGF|E2ED E2GF:|
|:E2GB edef|g2fg edBG|A2GB ABGA|BgdB e2ef|
g2fg edBG|~A3B AGEG|~A3B AGFG|E2ED E2GF:|

A tune considers of a header section with information about the tune and the basic glue to define the tune, followed by a list of notes, barlines, repeat signs, and other symbols.

The ABC module’s abc2ly.pl script uses the ABC module’s ABC library to read the file, and outputs the music in the Lilypond format. Lilypond produces very nice output, but the file format is a pain. For instance, the (3Bcd triplet in the above file is translated to this: \times 2/3 { b'8[ cis''8 d''8] }. But the PDF Lilypond outputs from it is beautiful.

I’ve been using this tool to handle my sheet music creation needs for about a year now, but in the last six weeks I’ve really stepped things up. I’ve added multi-note stems, chord names, text annotations, ties, slurs, and many other markings I needed, as well as fixing a number of bugs. As a test I threw the Ed Reavy ABC collection at it today. (After deleting the comment lines in the beginning, because I haven’t added them to the parser yet.) In the process I found four mistakes in the ABC file which threw the parser. Once they were fixed, it processed all 127 tunes in about 22 seconds. I haven’t examined the 44 pages of sheet music output by Lilypond closely yet, but it looks like all the problems I see with the output are actually errors (that parse) in the ABC file.

In conclusion, while it doesn’t implement the entire ABC standard yet, this is a perfectly usable ABC to Lilypond translator, capable of handling fairly complex single-staff ABC files quickly and accurately. It’s definitely reached the point where it’s more than reasonable for other people to start using it.


3 Responses to “About ABC”

  1. Handling Errors in ABC « Just Rakudo It Says:

    […] Just Rakudo It I Never Metaop I Didn't Like « About ABC […]

  2. kgoess Says:

    ABC ftw! Here’s a tip: when you get around to handling lyrics, make sure it handles utf-8 correctly.

    • colomon Says:

      Can you define “correctly”? I just looked at the ABC standard, and the word Unicode only appears once, and that’s just a section about ASCII sequences you can use to generate some common Latin-1 symbols.

      Oooo, but there is a section allowing you to specify what character set you are using. Latin-1 is the default. That’s actually kind of awkward, I think the ABC module uses utf-8 by default. Not that I’ve ever actually tried any non-ASCII characters…

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