Transcription of 18th-Century Music and Dance Publications to ABC

Starting with John Playford in the late 1600s, there were lot of publications in northwestern Europe of music for the kinds of dancing often called "country dance" in English. These sometimes contained dance descriptions, typically with a single tune for each dance. An extensive vocabulary developed for describing these dances, and new printing technology produced much cheaper publications over time, making the music and dance more widely available.

The purpose of this document is to describe some of the problems with transcribing this music and the dance instructions, into the popular ABC notation, and the (semi-)solutions that the transcribers have worked out.

Most of the time, it's most practical to transcribe each tune/dance as a separate file. These can be combined into larger files by various software, depending on how you are using them.

The simplest file names are just the title, with '_' used as a separator, and ".abc" as a suffix. Initial articles are usually dropped. This results in the "" files being in alphabetical order by title. If a title exists in more than one source text, and the music or dance description have significant differences, there may be multiple transcriptions, with a number or other code name for the volume added to the end of the title. Nearly-identical versions from several sources may be put in a single file, with several S: lines listing the sources. All this may change with time, in an attempt to make sense of all the different versions of published dance tunes.

In some cases, we want to preserve the order of the tunes in a volume, or in several volumes. This is usually done with a file name that starts with a string of digits, plus '_' and then the title as above. Some formats used are,,, etc. In these, V is the volume/book number, P is the page number, and N is the number (on the page, or sequentially starting with the book's first tune). Not all books have page numbers, and some books have at most one tune per page, and the total count of pages or tunes may require 2 or 3 digits. The width of such numbers in the file names should be documented for each collection.

There are many problems with the dance descriptions. The text is often not of good quality. Walsh and Wright were known for using the cheapest printing of the time. This made their music widely available, but didn't result in high-quality historical documents. Punctuation is often lost, periods and commas are difficult to distinguish, and random specks can look like periods. The thin parts of letters often fade or disappear. In the worst cases, "??" is used to indicate an illegible portion of text. In general, most of the words are legible (or can be inferred from context), but the punctuation shouldn't be considered reliable.

In many cases, there are explicit statements or good clues in the dance to determine the tune's repeat pattern. When this isn't clear, I've generally transcribed the repeat symbols as-is, which is usually different from modern practice. Initial double bars or begin-repeat symbols are used for full first bars, as is common with some publishers (but not others). Musicians playing for dancing may have to figure out the appropriate repeat pattern. It was common in the 18th century to omit final repeat symbols, and in such cases, the final repeat sign is added to match current practice. In some cases, the dance description describes the repeats, and the tune is modified (if necessary) to match that. And of course, when you're not playing a tune for its dance, you can use any repeat pattern you like.

Initial articles ("the", "a", "an" and similar words in other languages) are omitted in file names, and are lower case in the T: header. This is sometimes recommended for computer files, since it makes correct alphabetization easy in different languages by using the rule "Sort on the titles without their initial lower-case letters." Writing code to detect the language and spot articles is extremely difficult, so the task is best left to human transcribers.

Many of the publications of this era follow the early practice of only using sharps and flats, but not natural signs. So an accidental in the key signature is cancelled with a sharp or flat, not a natural. ABC follows the modern practice of using naturals in such cases. Some publications use this scheme, and also contains natural signs in some tunes. Sometimes you see both in a single tune. It's messy.

The dance descriptions use some abbreviations and non-typable "icons", mostly as dance phrase boundaries. The icons have been typed in the ABC with typable "tokens" similar to the icons, but usually rotated by 90°. These icons seem to be used in no consistent fashion, so all they really indicate is the end of a "strain", the common term at the time for the major sections of a tune and/or dance. Here are the commmon abbreviations:

Abbr. means description
D. double four steps forward, then backwards, end closing feet.
Co. Co: contrary a person of the other sex who isn't your partner. This may be confused with "corner", a person of the other sex who is in a diagonal position.
Cu. Cu: couple
Fig. fig. "Figure", "Figure of Eight", "Hey", "Reel for 3 or 4", etc. These are all terms for the common "passing on alternate sides" weaving figures. The exact figure should be determined from context. "Whole Figure" is sometimes used to mean "until you return to your starting position".
Gent. Gent: Gent.n Gentleman mostly in "turn S.", turn in place.
S. single mostly in "turn S.", turn in place.
We. We: women
Wo. Wo: woman
Here are the icons seen so far:
in book
in abc
M Man. Used mostly in diagrams at upper right showing initial formation. Also in-line in a few dances, transcribed as M.
W Woman. Used mostly in diagrams at upper right showing initial formation. Also in-line in a few dances, transcribed as W.
| Line thickness probably doesn't have any significance
.| This is the most common icon, and means the end of a tune's "strain".
:| This is the second most common icon, and usually means to repeat the previous strain.

These seem to be used occasionally to refer to the tune's second strain, but this isn't clear.
||: A double line might indicate the 2nd strain, but it isn't often used.
.|: Most of these marks don't seem to be used in any consistent manner; they might mean little more that "end of musical phrase" or "end of dance figure".
.||. ___
.||: ___
:|. ___
:|| ___
:||. ___
:||: ___
:|:: Sometimes means the 1st time through the tune's 3th strain.
:|:: Sometimes means the 2nd time through the tune's 3th strain.
:|:: Sometimes means the 1st time through the tune's 4th strain.
:|:: Sometimes means the 2nd time through the tune's 4th strain.
.: Probably all such 3-dot patterns mean the third time through a tune's strain, regardless of the arrangement of the 3 dots.
.:| The third time through a musical strain.
:.| The third time through a musical strain.
..| See Highland Laddy and Mac Foset's Farewell; probably means the same as with two horizontal dots.
.|. The first time through a musical strain.
:#: This seems to have been used to mark the end of the tune, in dances that need the tune played more than once. It may be the same as the # with dots at the corners.
:#: This seems to have been used to mark the ends of major dance sections but its meaning is unclear. In a few collections, it seems to mean the end of the tune, in dances that require more than once through the tune.
:|:| ___
:|.:| ___
.|# ___

These are "segno" symbols used in a few collections, most often to indicate repeat of the last 4 measures of a tune. The first is the symbol used above the staff in a tune; the second is used within a dance description like the above end-of-strain marks.
the then their In the 1700s the letter 'y' was still used for "th", often in this vertical format. So "ye" is usually transcribed as "the", and "yn" as "then". The "yr" spelling seems to have been used as either "their" or "your", but in these texts, it was almost always "their". Note that "ye" was also used for the plural of "you", but this doesn't seem to occur in many dance descriptions. When the meaning is clear from context, the modern spelling is used. When two words both make sense, the 'y' spelling may be transcribed (but this is rare).
## (columns) Some dance descriptions are written in two or three columns. This is typically done when the first part of the dance is varied, and the rest of the dance is the same each time. Some dances have several sections that are entirely different, but the sections have a consistent organization of the "strains". For such dances, I've sometimes used "##" to separate the columns, with a horizontal line (%%sep 1 1 300) between the sections.