ABC Music Notation: Words

by John Chambers
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A lot of music has words, otherwise known as lyrics, and there are two ways of showing them. You can put them below the music staff, aligned with the notes. Or you can show all the words below the music, in poetry format. The original ABC only did the latter; now it does both.

Putting words below the music is easy: Put W: at the start of each line. Such lines are collected by the music formatting programs, and produced after the last music staff is finished.

Putting words below the notes is more complicated, and is handled by lines that start with w: (note the lower-case w). W: lines can occur anywhere, though they are conventionally in the header. You must put w: lines immediately below their staff of music, of course.

Before explaining more, here is an example of a well-known Greek folk song, with the words included in both forms:


This was produced by abc2ps from the following ABC:
X: 1
T: Misirlou
C: N.Roubanis 1934
O: Greece
W: 1. Misirlou mou i glikia sou matia
W:    Floga m'ehi inapsi mes tin kardia
W:    Ah! Yahabibi Ah! Yaleleli Ah!
W:    Apto diko sou to sto mataki ime
W: Chorus:
W:    A Misirlou
W:    Trella tha m'erthi den ipofero pia
W:    Ah! tha si klepso mes ap tin Arapia.
W:    Ah Misirlou.
W: 2. Mavro mata Misirlou mou trelli
W:    Ti zoi m'allazo mena fili
W:    Ah! yahabibi M'ena filaki Ah!
W:    ta dio sou hili stazoune meli ime
M: 4/4
L: 1/8
K: Gm
|: "D"D3 E ^F2 G2 | A3B ^c2BA | A8- | A8 |
w: 1.~Mi-sir-lou mou i gli-kia sou ma-tia
w: 2.~Mav-ro ma-ta Mi-sir-lou mou tre-lli
| D3E ^F2G2 | A3B ^c2BA | A8- | A8 |
w: Flo-ga m'e-hi~i-na-psi mes tin kar-dia
w: Ti zo-i m'al-la-zo me-na fi-li
| "Gm"BA2B A2G2 | AG2A G2^F2 | "D"^F8- | ^F8 |
w: Ah! Ya-ha-bi-bi Ah! Ya-le-le-li Ah!
w: Ah! ya-ha-bi-bi M'e-na fi-la-ki Ah!
| "Cm"AG2A G2^F2 | ^FE2F E2DD | "D"D8- | D8 :|
w: ta dio sou hi-li sta-zou-ne me-li i-me
w: Ap-to di-ko sou to sto ma-ta-ki i-me
|: "Gm"G8- | G6 ^FG | "F"A8- | A6 GA | "Bm"B6 AB | "A"^c6 Bc | "D"d8- | d8 |
w: A___________ Mi-sir-lou
| "Cm"e d2 e d2 c2 | d c2 d c2 B2 | "D"A8- | A8 |
w: Tre-lla tha m'er-thi den i-po-fe-ro pia
| "Cm"c B2 c B2 A2 | A G2 A ^F2 E2 | "D"D8- | D8 :|
w: Ah! tha si kle-pso mes ap tin A-ra-pia.
P: Coda
|| "Gm"B6 AB | "A"^c6 Bc | "D"d8- | d8- | d8- | d z7 |]
w: Ah___ Mi-sir-lou.
The W: lines are self-explanatory, but there are a number of special symbols inside the w: lines that deal with the alignment with the notes. The basic rule is that each "word" is aligned with one note, where a "word" is whatever comes between chunks of white space. But the following can be used to modify this:

You might think that the W: and w: would be used only by the music formatting programs such as abc2mtex and abc2ps, but you'd be wrong. Some of the music-playing programs now have a "karaoke" option that displays or highlights the words as the music plays. Perhaps some day a program will include voice synthesis, so you can select a "Frank Sinatra" or "Ella Fitzgerald" or "Bob Dylan" voice, and hear how that singer would have done the song.

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Copyright 2001, 2002 by John Chambers