ABC Music Notation
Syntax and Extensions
by John Chambers
This description of abc notation has been created from Chris
Walshaw's original ABC 1.6 document, and then modified to describe
the various extensions and modifications that various people have
implemented to make ABC work with more kinds of music.
Each tune consists of a header and a body. The header, which is
composed of information fields, should start with an X (reference
number) field followed by a T (title) field and finish with a K (key)
field. The body of the tune in abc notation should follow immediately
after. Tunes are separated by blank lines.
... (more header fields)
Many programs have now been written that allow omitting any or all of
the header fields.
The X field is often omitted when there is only a single tune present.
The title is sometimes omitted for various reasons.
This has turned out to be very useful for people
working on such things as fragments of music embedded in text.
It can be handy to be able to represent just a few notes or bars of music
without such things as titles, signatures, and so on.
But note that a complete piece of music should have at least the parts
The information fields are used to notate things such as
composer, meter, etc. in fact anything that isn't music. Most of
the information fields are for use within a tune header but in
addition some may be used in the tune body, or elsewhere in the
Those which are allowed elsewhere can be used to set
up a default for the whole or part of a file. For example, in
exactly the same way that tunebooks are organised, a file might
start with M:6/8 and R:Jigs, followed by some jigs, followed by
M:4/4 and R:Reels, followed by some reels. Tunes within each
section then inherit the M: and R: fields automatically, although
they can be overridden inside a tune header.
Finally note that
any line beginning with a letter in the range A-Z and immediately
followed by a : is interpreted as a field (so that line like E:|,
which could be regarded as an E followed by a right repeat
symbol, will cause an error).
Originally, information fields were required to start in column
1 of a new line, with the colon in column 2. Most abc software
now accepts "inline" fields that are surrounded by  brackets.
These may occur almost anywhere. There must be no spaces between
the [ and the : two columns later.
Thus, one might change the key signature in the middle of a line
of music by writing [K:Bb]. Exactly how this is displayed
is up to the program, but it should at least end with the signature
for the new key.
||Examples and notes
||see Line Breaking
||archive H:This tune said to ...
||K:G, K:Dm, K:AMix
|L:default note length
||N:see also O'Neills - 234
||O:I, O:Irish, O:English
||P:ABAC, P:A, P:B
||S:collected in Brittany
||V:3 nm="vla" clef=alto
||W:Hey, the dusty miller
|w:words aligned with music
||w:Hey, the dus-ty mil-ler
Some additional notes on certain of the fields:
T - tune title.
Some tunes have more than one title and so this
field can be used more than once per tune - the first time will
generate the title whilst subsequent usage will generate the
alternatives in small print. The T: field can also be used
within a tune to name parts of a tune - in this case it should
come before any key or meter changes.
K - key; the key signature should be specified with a capital
letter which may be followed by a # or b for sharp or flat
respectively. In addition, different scales or modes can be
specified and, for example, K:F lydian, K:C, K:C major, K:C
ionian, K:G mixolydian, K:D dorian, K:A minor, K:Am, K:A aeolian,
K:E phrygian and K:B locrian would all produce a staff with no
sharps or flats. The spaces can be left out, capitalisation is
ignored for the modes and in fact only the first three letters of
each mode are parsed so that, for example, K:F# mixolydian is the
same as K:F#Mix or even K:F#MIX. There are two additional keys
specifically for notating highland bagpipe tunes; K:HP doesn't
put a key signature on the music, as is common with many tune
books of this music, while K:Hp marks the stave with F sharp, C
sharp and G natural. Both force all the beams and staffs to go
The original ABC 1.6 document included the text:
Finally, global accidentals can also be set in this field so that, for
example, K:D =c would write the key signature as two sharps (key of D) but
then mark every c as natural (which is conceptually the same as D
mixolydian). Note that the there can be several global accidentals, separated
by spaces and each specified with an accidental, _, _ _, =,
This turns out to have been somewhat of a mistake, and nobody has actually
implemented it. But a revision called "Explicit Key Signatures" has been
proposed, discussed a lot, and occasionally implemented. It looks similar to
the above, but it's a true key signature, suitable for music that uses scales
other than the classical scales of western Europe. Here's a description of
the proposed key signature standard:
The K field specifies a key signature, and has the syntax:
where any or all of the three portions may be omitted.
For the <tonic> and <mode> portions, case is not significant.
Spaces may be used around the three portions, for readability.
The <tonic> portion is a letter in the range [A-G], optionally
followed by a # or b for sharp or flat.
The <mode> portion is any of the following:
A mode may be spelled out, or may be abbreviated to its first three letters.
Most programs only check the first three letters.
| m ||min||minor|
The letter m alone stands for "minor",
and is the only mode that may be abbreviated to one character.
Note that M alone means "Minor", not "Major".
The <accidentals> portion may be used to explicitly list accidentals.
The notation is simply a list of notes preceded by accidentals.
The accidentals are drawn after the clef on the line or space indicated by
The case is significant in <accidentals>.
Thus, "K:^G" and "K:^g" put the sharp on different lines
(or spaces depending
on the clef).
There are several important uses for this:
Some musical styles use scales that don't match the classical European modes.
Publishers often force these into a classical mode and use accidentals to
get the right notes.
But people who play such styles often object to this and want the "right"
key signatures for their music.
ABC doesn't take sides in this debate; it allows you to do key signatures either way.
Some musical transcription projects have had problems with musical novices
who get the tonic and mode wrong, writing K:G for K:Em or K:Adorian for example.
And sometimes a piece of music is sufficiently ambiguous as to tonality that
you can't really say what is the correct tonic and mode.
You sometimes see naturals in key signatures to emphasize to novice musicians
that the scale is not major or minor. Thus, Scottish and Irish music will sometimes
use K:Amix=g with an "advisory" natural on the g to make it clear to readers
that, although the tonic note is A, the scale is not A major, and the g's are not sharp.
If none of the <tonic><mode><accidentals> portions is included,
there is no key signature.
This appears on paper the same as K:C, K:Am, K:Ddor, etc.
But the interpretation is different, since K: by itself means "no key
If <mode> and <accidentals> are both omitted, the mode defaults to major.
If the <tonic> is omitted, the <mode> must also be omitted, since
a mode without a tonic node isn't very useful.
If both <mode> and <accidentals> are used, then the key signature
for the <mode> is drawn first, followed by the <accidentals>.
If K:<tonic><accidentals> is used without a <mode>,
only the <accidentals> are drawn.
In this case, the <tonic> doesn't actually correspond to anything in printed music.
But the <tonic> is still useful, since it can be used in computerized lookups.
No key signature. C major, A minor, etc.
G major. One sharp (^f).
G minor. Two flats (_B_e).
B flat minor. Five flats (_B_e_A_d_G).
A mixolydian. Two sharps (^f^c). Common in traditional Scottish and Irish music.
A mixolydian with an advisory natural on the g.
For the benefit of musicians who might think the g sharp was accidentally omitted.
D Phrygian. Two flats (_B_e).
D Hejaz (or freygish for klezmer musicians). The signature is _B_e^F, with the sharp
on the lower space.
D Hejaz again, but this time with a signature of ^f_B_e.
Unspecified key, with just a c sharp in the signature.
Some traditional Scandinavian books use this for D Dorian,
and Swedish bagpipes are often tuned to a scale like this.
G with the lower F low and the upper f high.
This is the scale of some northern European bagpipes.
Musicians from the India will also be familiar with scales
that have different accidentals in different octaves.
L - default note length; i.e. L:1/4 - quarter note, L:1/8 -
eighth note, L:1/16 - sixteenth, L:1/32 - thirty-second. The
default note length is also set automatically by the meter field
M: (see below).
M - meter; apart from the normal meters, e.g. M:6/8 or M:4/4,
the symbols M:C and M:C| give common time and cut time
P - parts; can be used in the header to state the order in which
the tune parts are played, i.e. P:ABABCDCD, and then inside the
tune to mark each part, i.e. P:A or P:B.
Q - tempo; can be used to specify the notes per minute, e.g. if
the default note length is an eighth note then Q:120 or Q:C=120
is 120 eighth notes per minute. Similarly Q:C3=40 would be 40
dotted quarter notes per minute. An absolute tempo may also be
set, e.g. Q:1/8=120 is also 120 eighth notes per minute,
irrespective of the default note length.
G - group; to group together tunes for indexing purposes.
H - history;
can be used for multi-line stories/anecdotes, all of
which will be ignored until the next field occurs.
The following letters are used to represent notes on the treble staff:
-a- --- ---- ----
---- ---- ---- -C-
and by extension, the notes C, D, E, F, a' and b' are available.
The comma and apostrophe may be used more than once, to get more octaves.
A comma means "one octave lower"; an apostrophe means "one octave higher".
In fact, c, is the same as C and C' is the same as c.
Rests are generated with a z and can be modified in length in
exactly the same way as notes can.
Some programs now accept x to represent a rest that is not drawn
on the staff. This may be used in multi-voice music to make the
page less cluttered.
A few programs also use y to represent a "rest" that is neither
displayed nor played. This is essentially a spacer to force a
bit more separation between notes on the page.
NB: Throughout this document note lengths are referred as sixteenth,
eighth, etc. The commonly used equivalents are sixteenth note =
semi-quaver, eighth = quaver, quarter = crotchet and half = minim.
A letter [A-Ga-g] by itself represents a note of some duration.
You can represent notes of other durations by following the note
with a multiplier. The multiplier may a (positive) integer or
a fraction. Thus A3 is an A three times as long as just A,
and F3/2 is an F 50% longer than F.
A numerator of 1 and a denominator of 2 may be omitted, so G1/2,
G/2 and G/ all mean the same thing, a G half as long as G.
Each meter automatically sets a default note length and a single
letter in the range [A-Ga-g] will generate a note of this length. For
example, in 3/4 time the default note length is an eighth note and so
the input DEF represents 3 eighth notes.
The default note length can be calculated by computing the meter as a
decimal; if it is less than 0.75 the default is a sixteenth note,
otherwise it is an eighth note. For example, 2/4 = 0.5, so the
default note length is a sixteenth note, while 4/4 = 1.0 or 6/8 =
0.75, so the default is an eighth note. Common time and cut time (M:C
and M:C|) have an eighth note as default.
Notes of differing lengths can be obtained by simply putting a
multiplier after the letter. Thus in 2/4, A or A1 is a sixteenth
note, A2 an eighth note, A3 a dotted eighth note, A4 a quarter
note, A6 a dotted quarter note, A7 a double dotted quarter note,
A8 a half note, A12 a dotted half note, A14 a double dotted half
note, A15 a triple dotted half note and so on, whilst in 3/4, A
is an eighth note, A2 a quarter note, A3 a dotted quarter note,
A4 a half note, ...
To get shorter notes, either divide them - e.g. in 3/4, A/2 is a
sixteenth note, A/4 is a thirty-second note - or change the
default note length with the L: field. Alternatively, if the
music has a broken rhythm, e.g. dotted eighth note/sixteenth note
pairs, use broken rhythm markers (see below). Note that A/ is
shorthand for A/2.
A common occurrence in traditional music is the use of a dotted
or broken rhythm. For example, hornpipes, strathspeys and certain
morris jigs all have dotted eighth notes followed by sixteenth
notes as well as vice-versa in the case of strathspeys. To
support this abc notation uses a > to mean `the previous note is
dotted, the next note halved' and < to mean `the previous note is
halved, the next dotted'. Thus the following lines all mean the
same thing (the third version is recommended):
a3b cd3 a2b2c2d2
a3/2b/2 c/2d3/2 abcd
a>b c<d abcd
As a logical extension, >> means that the first note is double
dotted and the second quartered and >>> means that the first note
is triple dotted and the length of the second divided by eight.
Similarly for << and <<<.
This broken-rhythm notation is only valid if the two notes are of equal length.
If they aren't, the results are not well defined.
These can be simply coded with the notation (2ab for a duplet,
(3abc for a triplet or (4abcd for a quadruplet, etc., up to (9.
The musical meanings are:
(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
If the time signature is compound (3/8, 6/8, 9/8, 3/4, etc.) then
n is three, otherwise n is two.
More general tuplets can be specified using the syntax (p:q:r
which means `put p notes into the time of q for the next r
notes'. If q is not given, it defaults as above. If r is not
given, it defaults to p. For example, (3:2:2 is equivalent to
(3::2 and (3:2:3 is equivalent to (3:2 , (3 or even (3:: . This
can be useful to include notes of different lengths within a
tuplet, for example (3:2:2G4c2 or (3:2:4G2A2Bc and also describes
more precisely how the simple syntax works in cases like (3D2E2F2
or even (3D3EF2. The number written over the tuplet is p.
To group notes together under one beam they should be grouped
together without spaces. Thus in 2/4, A2BC will produce an eighth
note followed by two sixteenth notes under one beam whilst A2 B C
will produce the same notes separated. The beam slopes and the
choice of upper or lower staffs are generated automatically.
Bar line symbols are generated as follows:
| bar line
|] thin-thick double bar line
|| thin-thin double bar line
[| thick-thin double bar line
:| left repeat
|: right repeat
:: left-right repeat
First and second repeats can be generated with the symbols [1 and
[2, e.g. faf gfe|[1 dfe dBA:|[2 d2e dcB|]. When adjacent to bar
lines, these can be shortened to |1 and :|2, but with regard to
spaces | [1 is legal, | 1 is not.
^, = and _ are used (before a note) to generate
respectively a sharp, natural or flat. Double sharps and flats
are available with
^^ and __ respectively.
To change key, meter, or default note length, simply put in a new
line with a K: M: or L: field, e.g.
ed|cecA B2ed|cAcA E2ed|cecA B2ed|c2A2 A2:|
AB|cdec BcdB|ABAF GFE2|cdec BcdB|c2A2 A2:|
To do this without generating a new line of music, put a \ at the
end of the first line, i.e.
E2E EFE|E2E EFG|\
A2G F2E D2|]
You can tie two notes together either across or within a bar with
a - symbol, e.g. abc-|cba or abc-cba. More general slurs can be
put in with () symbols. Thus (DEFG) puts a slur over the four
notes. Spaces within a slur are OK, e.g. (D E F G), but the open
bracket should come immediately before a note (and its
accents/accidentals, etc.) and the close bracket should come
immediately after a note (and its octave marker or length). Thus
(=b c'2) is OK but ( =b c'2 ) is not.
Grace notes can be written by enclosing them in curly braces,
. For example, a taorluath on the Highland pipes would be
written GdGe. The tune `Athol Brose' (in the file Strspys.abc)
has an example of complex Highland pipe gracing in all its glory.
Grace notes have no time value and so expressions such as a2
or are not legal.
Alternatively, the tilde symbol represents the general gracing
of a note which, in the context of traditional music, can mean
different things for different instruments, for example a roll,
cran or staccato triplet
Staccato marks (a small dot above or below the note head) can be
generated by a dot before the note, i.e. a staccato triplet is
written as (3.a.b.c
For fiddlers, the letters u and v can be used to denote up-bow
and down-bow, e.g. vAuBvA
Chords (i.e. more than one note head on a single stem) can be
coded with  symbols around the notes, e.g. [CEGc] produces the
chord of C major. They can be grouped in beams, e.g.
[d2f2][ce][df] but there should be no spaces within a chord. See
the tune `Kitchen Girl' in the file Reels.abc for a simple
If the chord contains two notes both of the same length and
pitch, such as [DD], then it is a unison (e.g. a note played on
two strings of a violin simultaneously) and is shown as note-head
with both upward and downward stems.
Guitar chords can be put in under the melody line by enclosing
the chord in inverted commas, e.g. "Am7"A2D2 . See the tune
`William and Nancy' in English.abc for an example.
The order of symbols for one note is guitar chords
(e.g. roll, staccato marker or up/downbow), accidental, note,
octave, note length, i.e.
^ c'3 or even "Gm7"v.=G,2
Tie symbols, -, should come immediately after a note group but
may be followed by a space, i.e.
=G,2- . Open and close chord
symbols, , should enclose entire note sequences (except for
guitar chords), i.e.
"Gm7"[.=G,^c'] and open and
close slur symbols, (), should do likewise, i.e.
A % symbol will cause the remainder of any input line to be
ignored. The file English.abc contains plenty of examples.
The letters H-Z can be used to define your own new notation
within a tune. Currently the way they are implemented (if at all)
is extremely package dependent and so users are advised not to
rely too heavily on them to include new features. Instead, if
there is a feature or symbol that you need and which is not
available it is better to press for it to be included as a part
of the language.
Generally one line of abc notation will produce one line of
music, although if the music is too long it will overflow onto
the next line. This can look very effective, but it can also
completely ruin ties across bar lines, for example. You can
counteract this by changing either the note spacing with the E:
field (although currently this is package dependent) or break the
line of abc notation. If, however, you wish to use two lines of
input to generate one line of music then simply put a backslash (\) at the end of
the first line. This is also useful for changing meter or key in
the middle of a line of music.
With most packages lines of music are right-justified. However,
where this is not the case (e.g. when using MusicTeX), a * at the
end of each line of abc notation will force a right-justified
The ABC Standard
This document started off as Chris Walshaw's plain-text intro
to ABC, and was converted to HTML by Laura Conrad.
It was edited to include ideas and extensions by
John Chambers at MIT.