ABC Protocol


NOTE: This protocol was updated on  9/3/2016

What You Need in order to read the music.

The transcriptions of music manuscripts that you can download from our site have been transcribed into the “ABC” music notation language.

This produces a simple ASCII text file, which you can download. The file extension needs to be “.abc”

In order to turn the text file back into music notation that can be seen, heard and printed using your computer, you need to download an appropriate ABC music notation program from ABC Homepage

There are several programs to choose from and they are free.

As quite a few of our tunes are multi-voiced, you will need to choose a program that uses ABC Standard 2.1

Suitable programs include ABCexplorer, ABCnavigator, EasyABC, and others


This is a change from our early use of ABC2win, and all our original early files have been changed in some way to reflect this. If you have original versions of the files you are advised to download new ones, which contain revisions and are now version dated.

Due to the limitations of the ageing ABC 1.6 Standard, each of the different ABC software developers introduced their own extensions to the standard, to increase the functionality of their particular ABC program. Unfortunately, not all the extensions are recognized by other programs, and some of them contradict each other. Some of the conventions that we used in previous versions of the Village Music Project website, whilst being perfectly acceptable to ABC2WIN, and not mistakes per se, had proven to be problematic when transferred to other programs, which, along with the requirement for multi-voicing, has prompted the changeover towards ABC version 2.1.

Why ABC?

We have chosen to transcribe the manuscript collections using the “ABC” tune notation system because: –

ABC programs are available for all operating systems (see ABC homepage);

These programs are cheap, usually free;

The programs and files together take up hardly any space on the computer;

The programs are reasonably simple to operate;

ABC music files are very small and can be downloaded from the Internet quickly;

Producing printed copy of the tunes is easy;

Listening to the tunes is simply done, either through the internal speaker or through a soundcard;

ABC music files are simple text files, transportable between both ABC programs and text editing programs;

ABC files can be converted to Midi and Postscript, PDF, Gif , PNG and also into many other music notation programs.

ABC files printed as text can be read, and manually transposed back to “proper” staff notation, even without the aid of a computer, and are therefore not at the mercy of technology.

ABC is very popular amongst traditional musicians.

Your Use Of The Tunes

The tunes have been researched and transcribed at considerable trouble, by many busy people, in their spare time, gratis, and are then given to you, copyright excepted, entirely free. Please download/print out the material as entire collections, to ensure their integrity and ultimate long-term survival.

We would ask in return that if you use tunes from our site, in either paper or CD publication, or research, or in any other way, then please acknowledge the fact that you have done so, and let us know, and our contributors may thereby feel some reward. Wholesale surreptitious theft of our work for your personal gain will be mightily frowned upon. Lifting of some tunes for gain may also involve infringement of somebody’s copyright.

Drop us a line if you find the site useful and then we can assess our impact.

The way we use ABC at the VMP (you don’t need to read this unless you’re after an explanation of something).

The first thing you will probably notice in our collection is that the amount of information provided in the “Headers” of each individual tune tells you lots about that tune. This information stays with the tune, even if the tune subsequently gets copied to another of your files, for working on, comparing, or whatever. This information includes not just key, tempo, etc., but also what MS collection it came from, multiple titles, and the fact that it is a VMP transcription and who transcribed it, etc.

We ALWAYS try to enter tunes in the order in which they appear in the original manuscript/book.

The tune title always has its individual catalogue number attached, which will then appear in any index you make, helping you to distinguish between different versions of the same tune.

The definite article is included where given in the MS, but removed to the end of the title and placed after a comma and a space. This is for indexing purposes.

Alternative titles are given in the second and third T:boxes, with “aka” (also known as!) when it is supplied by us from an external source to the MS, and without “aka” if the alternative title is supplied from within the MS itself.

Use of the “Rhythm” R: box, e.g. “R:Jig”. For the brave, is subjective. I sometimes have a go 🙂 but I often don’t!

Tempii have been entered to suit ABC2midi, the main player program. i.e. for example in 6/8 jigs, Q:3/8=120, not Q:120 as in our previous ABC2win version files.

The tempo has been entered on no authority other than what seemed appropriate to me at the time, usually based on my own experience/fancy, tempered with the need to make the tune intelligible. They often seem wrong to me now, looking back at a tune from a distance in time, but there you are, eh? You must make your own judgements for your own requirements. You should be aware that programs don’t always agree over the interpretation of the Q: instruction (see above).

Line endings in the tune body are EITHER :-

<EOL> (carriage return) signifying a score line-break


(NB this will be discouraged for future files as it is deprecated in the current standard) An exclamation mark ! , necessary in ABC2WIN to force a score line-break.

Some programs ignore/exterminate anything after an exclamation mark, ending that line of score but disappearing any remaining text, instead of putting it onto the next line, so none of our tunes are meant to have text at all after one.


a backslash \ to deny a score line-break.

Lines of text can be kept quite short with the backslash, useful when sending tunes by email to avoid damage from line-wrapping

Repeat marks at the beginning of a tune are conventionally missed out and therefore usually considered optional. The exception is in multi-voiced tunes, which ABC2midi won’t play correctly if the initial repeat marks are missing.

Repeat marks within a tune, between parts A and B for instance, are the cause of some problems. Different notation programs are apt to treat the different ways of indicating repeats their own way, (e.g. ::, or :||: within a line) and you may have to tweak a tune to display it correctly in your chosen program. Abc2win allows certain amounts of vagueness in this area and still gauges your intention, but other programs don’t necessarily do so.

Editorial Intervention

If we were doing “paper” publishing I would certainly aim for something like the editorial policy of the late Gordon Ashman in “The Ironbridge Hornpipe”, published by DRAGONFLY MUSIC, viz. “In editing John Moore’s work, I have intervened as little as possible. Where Moore has made musical errors, I draw the readers attention to the problem, but unless absolutely necessary, I have not made corrections; where this is the case, I have used editorial square brackets.”


However, we have to work within the constraints of what computers consider to be an “error”; my following remarks may end up being superseded by those constraints. A large problem is caused by the useful fact that the tunes can be PLAYED BACK by various programs. Any use of this facility can be entirely spoiled by difficulties within the musical grammar of the MS. Therefore, to aid PLAYBACK, certain changes are actually MADE rather than merely RECOMMENDED.

Changes to rests, repeat marks, lead-in notes, to make tune repeats work properly, are permitted, as long as there can be no doubt as to the original intention. It has to be borne in mind that even printed dance music in ‘those’ days appears to have treated repeat marks as ornamental/discretionary.

Anything that MAY be an alteration, for instance “correcting” key signatures, time signatures, note lengths, is only done with EXTREME CAUTION, each change then being fully recorded WITHIN the tune either with explanatory text above, or using an Asterisk or some such, in quotes before the offending passage, (which puts an asterisk, or such, above the passage when printed out). Readers who wish to know what the change was may then refer to the tune header, where it is either recorded after at the end of the tune, or in the “N:” box.

Alternatively “Cr” or “crot” or “crs” above a note means that the note was a crotchet or crotchets in the MS. Similarly “Qu” “qu’s” was quaver(s) in the MS. Similarly, changes may be recorded as for instance “E2fGAB in ms”, “Cmaj in MS” “Semi-quavers in bar three shown as minims in MS”, etc.

Actual changes in the sense of replacing missing bars may be treated in the same way, for instance “bar 6 missing, presumed error, reconstructed as per….” and this will usually be found in the N: or W: fields.

Sometimes it has been thought useful to intervene in a more or less major fashion, in which case the original unedited version appears separately for comparison.

Where we feel that there is something wrong in the MS but have managed to avoid the temptation of making the change, then we may place a “?” above the appropriate part of the music, again indicating to the reader that they may find further information in the tune’s N:field. E.g. “N: C in bar 4 would perhaps be better sharp?”

The aim throughout is to make the tune available as it appears to have been intended in the MS in the first place, but represented in modern music notation. This is different in intention from producing a facsimile.

In summary, any editorial changes are kept to an absolute minimum, but certainly recorded with the N: or W: or w: field or in quote marks (“”) .

In all these changes the intention is for it to be transparent what the changes or reconstructions have been, and the original MS should be apparent and recoverable underneath, as there may be a variety of opinion as to what had been the intended key, etc. If there is no indication that something has been changed, then you may be sure nothing has been changed – no matter how bizarre the end result may seem.

All the ABC files have been checked against the originating MS or photocopy by a second transcriber before adding to the website, which picks up the vast majority of inevitable errors; however, the odd error still slips through, for which I apologise.

Chris Partington, March 2016