Handling Errors in ABC

When I started thinking I should write yesterday’s post and started testing the Ed Reavy ABC file, I quickly ran into one of the module’s limitations that I thought I should fix before claiming ABC was a useful program.

When I started trying the Reavy file, if the ABC file ran into an error in the ABC file, it would frequently just hang. Now, it was relatively easy to track down the erroneous ABC at that point, because the ABC Actions class prints all the title fields it finds as it finds them. You’d watch the list of tune names going by, and if it stopped the list before the tune file was done and just sat there, you knew something was wrong with that tune.

That’s okay for a toy program that only I play with, but it’s unacceptable for a serious program other people can use. I had a theory about what caused it: when the grammar hit something it didn’t understand, it started backtracking to try to find a correct way of interpreting the file. Since there was no correct way, that resulted in a painfully long attempt to repeatedly re-interpret the bad data.

So I asked how to stop backtracking grammar regexes on #perl6. They helpfully suggested changing the ABC grammar’s regex methods to token, because token suppresses backtracking. I tried just changing one method, and that didn’t help. I tried changing them all, and that failed some tests. I changed one method back, and suddenly all the tests passed, and the grammar no longer hung on ABC file errors!

That was a huge improvement, but it was still only marginally helpful at figuring out what the problem in ABC file was. Once I was done with yesterday’s post, I tried to figure out how to get better information about where the parsing problem was. I hit upon a simple method. I added a $.current-tune attribute to the ABC::Actions class. When the action for a tune title fires, it clears this attribute and sets it to the tune title:

    method header_field($/) {
        if $<header_field_name> eq "T" {
            $*ERR.say: "Parsing " ~ $<header_field_data>;
            $.current-tune = $<header_field_data> ~ "\n";
        make ~$<header_field_name> => ~$<header_field_data>;

When the action method for the bar token fires, it adds the string of the bar to $.current-tune. When the action method for line_of_music fires, it adds a newline. And when a fatal error occurs parsing an ABC file, it prints out this attribute, resulting in error messages that look like this:

Unhandled exception: Did not match ABC grammar: last tune understood:
 Silent The Lonely Glen
g/2f/2|ed/2B/2 AG/2A/2|B/2d^c/2 dg/2f/2|ed/2B/2 AG/2A/2|

While this isn’t an exact reproduction of what’s in the tune, it’s close enough to easily show where the problem is:

g/2f/2|ed/2B/2 AG/2A/2|B/2d^c/2 dg/2f/2|ed/2B/2 AG/2A/2|
B/2>A/2G/2/F/2 eg/2f/2|ed/2B/2 ba/2g/2|g/2f/2e/2^d/2|

You just look at where the grammar stopped understanding the file, and the error pops right out if you know ABC: B/2>A/2G/2/F/2. Delete that duration not attached to a note, and the grammar will zip right through the tune.

I’m sure there are more sophisticated ways to handle errors in parsing available in Perl 6, because the STD grammar uses them to give you great error messages. But this is a simple technique which is pretty handy.

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