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If you are familiar with “shape note” sheet music, then you may have from time to time wished you could print your own sheet music in the shape note style. These instructions are for you!


Even if you are not familiar with shape notes the classic movie “The Sound of Music” has introduced the concept of the “moveable do” system to millions through the memorable song “Do-Re-Mi.” Many people prefer to sing from sheet music that is formatted in the shape note style.

For those of us who are not proficient at an instrument but still like to sing, sometimes there is a musical phrase that gives us trouble. It can be handy to type a few letters and not only see the musical score (in shaped notes if you prefer) but to be able to press a button and hear the music to help train our ear to the tune.

The tools we will be using are free, very flexible and allow a wide range of vocal and instrumental scores to be entered and printed. The “language” we will use to input the music is called “abc.” One nice thing about abc notation is that it is entered from your computer keyboard in plain letters and symbols. If you have been frustrated in trying to learn how to input music in a “high end” software package, you may find that you love how simple and intuitive abc notation is.

Step 1: “Hello World”

There is a long tradition that when learning a new computer programming language, tutorials will show the easiest and quickest way to display the message “Hello World!.” The purpose is to show quick results, to demonstrate the fundamentals of the environment, and to reduce the feeling that things are going to be “impossible.” While we are not learning a programming language, abc is in the category of “music macro languages,” which means the abc “language” is a representation of music that computers can easily read and process. (It’s great that the abc “language” is also music that humans can easily read and process too!) As a “play” on the “Hello World” idea, our first tune will be the musical phrase of “hello world” from the song “Hello World” by Lady Antebellum.


Open up a browser (Google Chrome is recommended) and enter this URL into the “location bar.” If you are reading this online, you can simply click the link and it will take you there. http://www.projectnotions.com/abc2shapenote/abc2sn.xhtml

You will see a screen that looks like this (Figure 1)

Replace the lines in the left window with the following lines:

X:1
T:Hello World! 
K:Eb
EE G2 |

In a couple of seconds notice your “Hello World!” tune is displayed on the right: Congratulations, you’ve created a musical score in the shape note style! (See Figure 2 - "Hello World")

Here is an explanation for all of the lines.

Abc Tune Header

The lines

X:1
T:Hello World!
K:Eb

make up the abc tune header. The header starts with the reference number (X:) and the tune title (T:). The header ends with the key field (K:). Other fields can be between the X:,T: and the K: fields and we will cover some of them later.

X:n is the reference number. “n” can be any number you choose. We have used “1”.
T:text is the Title. The Title can be anything you choose to name it. K:xx is the “key” of the song. Examples are, “C”, “Eb”, D#”, etc.

Abc Tune Body

The lines after the header key field (K:) make up the tune body. The tune body contains the music code that specify the notes, bar lines, and other musical symbols. In our example

EE G2 |

indicates that the notes E, E, and G above middle C should be written. The G note should be twice as long as the default (in this case the default is an eighth note) and that a bar should follow.

And that’s it! It IS as easy as “abc!” You can even press the “Play” button and hear the notes played.

Overview of next steps

We will be using the classic early American song “Amazing Grace” for these instructions For this “getting started” set of instructions we will use a vocal arrangement designed for four part harmony. We will call the parts soprano, alto, tenor and bass. Here is a summary of the steps in the following sections:

  • Step 2 - Enter the tune header
  • Step 3 - Review the basics of the abc tune body
  • Step 4 - Enter music for the Soprano voice
  • Step 5 - Enter music for the Alto, Tenor, Bass voices
  • Step 6 - Enter the lyrics
  • Step 7 - Play, Print, and even more resources
  • Step 8 (Optional) - Music Basics Refresher and Links

Here is an example of “Amazing Grace” with a normal music score. (See Figure 3 - Amazing Grace in traditional sheet music notation.)

Below is an example of the same music printed in the shaped note system. (See Figure 4 - Amazing Grace sheet music in the 7 shape note style.)

Beyond just printing a score in shaped notes, the web page will also play the song. For songs with multiple parts(or voices) you can select which parts you want to hear. For many non-professionals this ability to play the song helps tremendously in learning to sing the desired part. In a few short steps, you will be well on your way to printing and learning music in the shaped note tradition.

So, let’s get started.

Step 2: Enter the Tune Header

The song we will be using is “Amazing Grace.” You might want to print out a copy to work from as we are entering the music. Here is a link to a PDF that you can download and print. So we will “note” a few things to get started. This version of “Amazing Grace” is written in the key of Ab (A flat) and has a time signature of 4/4. The bottom part of the time signature tells us the a quarter note gets 1 beat.

So, let’s return to the projectnotions.com “ABC Web Editor with Shape Notes” that we used for our “Hello World!” exercise. The link is here: http://projectnotions.com/abc2shapenote/abc2sn.xhtml

In the ABC input area enter the following, then we will explain each item line by line. (You can use “cut and paste” to copy the lines from these instructions into the web page.)

%abc-2.1
X:1
T:Amazing Grace
C:Lyric Author: John Newton / Early American Melody
Z:Public Domain
L:1/4
M:3/4
V:S clef=treble name=""
V:A clef=treble name=""    
V:T clef=bass name=""  
V:B clef=bass name="" 
%%score (S A) (T B)
%%pagewidth 8.5in
K:Ab

The version of the abc standard we are using is version 2.1. So the first line is a comment line, since it starts with a “%” symbol, and it’s generally good practice to begin an abc file with the comment “%abc-2.1”.

The next set of lines from “X:1” to “K:Ab” make up the abc tune header. The tune header tells abc various information about the song. There are even more information fields that you can read about in the specification, but these will get us started.

The tune header starts with the “X” field, or reference number. You can use any number you would like, in this case we are using “1”. The “T”, “C”, “Z” fields are “Z:Title”, “C:Composer”, and “Z:Transcription” respectively. We also covered the “K:key” field in our “Hello World” example, and we’ve set the key to A flat. The tune header starts with the “X” field and ends with the “K” field.

The “L” field defines the default note length. By entering “L:1/4" we have defined the default note length to be a quarter note. Later when we enter the tune, if we just enter a note name by itself it will default to a quarter note (1/4).

The “M” field defines the meter, or time signature. “M:3/4" tells abc that the meter is in 3/4 time.

Our version of Amazing Grace has four voices. The two in the treble clef are the “Soprano” voice and the “Alto” voice. The two in the bass clef are the “Tenor” voice and the “Bass” voice. The lines

V:S clef=treble name="" 
V:A clef=treble name=""     
V:T clef=bass name=""  
V:B clef=bass name="" 

tell abc that we will mark Soprano notes with a “S”, Alto notes with an “A”, Tenor notes with a “T”, and Bass notes with a “B”. We’ll show exactly how in the next step. Ignore the (name=””) for now, but when we finish you can see how it can be used to clearly show which part is which.

Next there are two special lines that begin with a “%%”. Lines beginning with “%%” are called style directives and they provide formatting and other directions to programs that process abc tunes. The program we are using to translate the abc music was written by Jean-Francois Moine, and he provides his programs free of charge under an open source license. He is quite a remarkable programmer, and if you appreciate his work, I’m sure he would appreciate a donation on his web page.

The line “%%score (S A) (T B)” tells the program to display the music with two staves, the Soprano and Alto voices on the top staff, and the Tenor and Bass voices on the bottom staff. The line “%%pagewidth 8.5in” indicates that the page width is 8.5 inches. (Go ahead and try changing the line to “%%pagewidth 11in” and observe what happens.)

OK, that’s it! Notice that some of our header information is nicely displayed, the T:Title and the C:Composer fields. The right side of your screen should look like Figure 5.

(Figure 5 - Amazing Grace abc Tune Header Output)

Now we are ready to enter music!.

Step 3: Review the Basics of the Abc Tune Body

The next part of an abc tune is the tune body. The tune body contains the music notes, measure bars, other music symbols and lyrics. Before we enter the music notes, let’s review how abc names the notes on the scale, handles accidentals (sharps and flats), defines the note length, and how rests are entered.

abc Note Symbols

Before we will enter the music notes for the Soprano voice (the top set of notes.), observe the following figure, and “note” how abc differentiates between “A,,” “A,” “A” “a” “a’” and so on. They are all the note “A” but where in the music staff the “A” is depends on capitalization and if a comma or apostrophe (or multiple commas or apostrophes) follow the letter. It’s OK if you refer to this chart as you enter the notes. After you get some practice, you’ll start to remember without looking each note up. A rest is the letter “z”.

See Figure 6 - abc note symbols

abc Note Lengths

In the tune header we set the default length of a note to be a quarter note (“L:1/4"). So if we enter a note by itself (i.e. “C”) it will be a quarter note. If we want an eight note (½ the length of a quarter note) we simply enter “C1/2”. A sixteenth note is “C1/4” and so on. As a shortcut we can enter “C/” instead of “C1/2” and “C//” instead of “C1/4”.

Another shortcut provided by abc is for “broken rhythm” situations. It is common in music to have a dotted note followed by a ½ note. For example a dotted eighth note followed by a sixteenth note. In such situations the following two abc music lines are the same:

L:1/8
C3/2C1/2   %dotted eighth note followed by sixteenth note
C>C        %abc shortcut for dotted note followed by 1/2 note

Look at Figure 7 and notice the “broken rhythm” examples in the third staff.

See Figure 7 - Note Length and Broken Rhythm

Step 4: Enter Music for the Soprano Voice

OK, with those abc tune body basics out of the way, let’s enter the music for the Soprano part. Enter the following lines after the line that has “K:Ab”

% Measures 1 - 7
[V:S] (E/ F/) | A2 (c/ A/) | c2 B | A2 F |  E2 (E/ F/) | A2 (c/ A/) | c2 (B/ c/) | He2 |
% Measures 8 - 14
[V:S] (B/ c/) | e2 (e/ c/) | | A2 (F/ E/) |  A2 F | E2 (E/ F/) | A2 (c/ A/) | c2 B | HA2 |

The first and third lines begin with a “%” and are comment lines and we just make a comment to help keep our place in the music.

The second and fourth lines start with “[V:S]” and this tells abc we are going to enter the “S” voice. Remember we set that up in the tune header with the line (V:S clef=treble name=""). Our default note length is a quarter note (“L:1/4"). We want two eighth notes so we enter “E/ F/”.

But wait… what is the “( )” that surrounds the “E/ F/”? That tells abc that we want a “tie” or “slur” across those notes. The “|” tells abc to put a measure bar at that spot, and the “H” before the last note of both lines tells abc that it is a fermata or “hold” note.

(See Figure 8 - Amazing Grace - Soprano voice)

(If you want to "cheat" and just cut & paste the tune so far, here it is... we won't tell, we promise! :)

%abc-2.1<br>X:1
T:Amazing Grace
C:Lyric Author: John Newton / Early American Melody
Z:Public Domain
L:1/4
M:3/4
V:S clef=treble name=""
V:A clef=treble name=""
V:T clef=bass name=""
V:B clef=bass name=""
%%score (S A) (T B)
%%pagewidth 8.5in
K:Ab
% Measures 1 - 7
[V:S] (E/ F/) | A2 (c/ A/) | c2 B | A2 F |  E2 (E/ F/) | A2 (c/ A/) | c2 (B/ c/) | He2 |
% Measures 8 - 14
[V:S] (B/ c/) | e2 (e/ c/) | | A2 (F/ E/) |  A2 F | E2 (E/ F/) | A2 (c/ A/) | c2 B | HA2 |

You’ve made it this far; go ahead and press the [Play] button!

Step 5: Enter Music for the Alto, Tenor, Bass Voices

Following the same method that we used for the Soprano voice, now enter the music for the rest of the voices. Wow, we have a nice score with all the music! The full abc “code” isn’t that complicated either. Here is the abc input and the output so far:

%abc-2.1<br>X:1
T:Amazing Grace
C:Lyric Author: John Newton / Early American Melody
Z:Public Domain
L:1/4
M:3/4
V:S clef=treble name="" 
V:A clef=treble name=""    
V:T clef=bass name=""  
V:B clef=bass name="" 
%%score (S A) (T B)
%%pagewidth 8.5in
K:Ab
% Measures 1 - 7
[V:S] (E/ F/) | A2 (c/ A/) | c2 B | A2 F |  E2 (E/ F/) | A2 (c/ A/) | c2 (B/ c/) | He2 |
[V:A] (C/ D/) | C2 (E/ C/) | E2 D | C2 D | C2 (C/ D/) | C2 (E/ C/) | E2 A | HG2 |
[V:T] A, | E,2 A, | A,2 G, | A,2 A, | A,2 A, | E,2 A, | A,2 A, | HB,2 |
[V:B] A,, | A,,2 A,, | A,,2 E, | F,2 D, | A,,2 A,, | A,,2 A,, | A,2 F, | HE,2 |
% Measures 8 - 14
[V:S] (B/ c/) | e2 (e/ c/)  | A2 (F/ E/) |  A2 F | E2 (E/ F/) | A2 (c/ A/) | c2 B | HA2 |
[V:A] G | A2 (A/ E/) | E2 (D/ C/) | F2 D | C2 (C/ D/) | C2 (E/ A/) | G2 G | HE2 |
[V:T] E | C2 (C/ A,/) | C2 A, | A,2 A, | A,2 A, | A,2 (A,/ C/) | E2 D | HC2 |
[V:B] E, | A,2 A, | A,2 A, | D,2 D, | A,,2 A, | F,2 E, | E,2 E, | HA,,2 |

(See Figure 10 - abc output for Amazing Grace (SATB) .. or better yet, cut & paste the above into:

http://projectnotions.com/abc2shapenote/abc2sn.xhtml

and see the output first hand! )

Step 6: Enter the Lyrics

We’re almost done. Entering the words of the song is pretty straight forward. There are a few techniques that we use to fix the alignment of notes to words and we’ll list those special symbols up front in the following table.

Sym abc meaning                                     Example
--- ----------------------------------------------  ---------------------
-   (hyphen) break between syllables with a word    w: re-lieved (2 notes)
_   (underscore) previous syllable held extra note  That_ (2 notes)
*   One note is skipped (* is a blank syllable)     w: That * (2 notes)
~   Appears as a space; multiple words under 1 note w: 1.~When (1 note)
\-  Appears as a hyphen; multiple syllables w/1 note
|   Advances to the next bar

To chose which style of notes you want, “7 shape”, “4 shape” or “normal-oval” simply click your choice in the “Rendering Selections” menu:

So here is our completed abc tune: (Again, you can use cut-and-paste, or even easier, you can clear the input area and press the button “Amazing Grace” in the “Sample” section on the web page.)

%abc-2.1<br>X:1
T:Amazing Grace
C:Lyric Author: John Newton / Early American Melody
Z:Public Domain
L:1/4
M:3/4
V:S clef=treble name="" 
V:A clef=treble name=""    
V:T clef=bass name=""  
V:B clef=bass name="" 
%%score (S A) (T B)
%%pagewidth 11in
K:Ab
% Measures 1 - 7
[V:S] (E/ F/) | A2 (c/ A/) | c2 B | A2 F |  E2 (E/ F/) | A2 (c/ A/) | c2 (B/ c/) | He2 |
[V:A] (C/ D/) | C2 (E/ C/) | E2 D | C2 D | C2 (C/ D/) | C2 (E/ C/) | E2 A | HG2 |
w:1.~A_maz-ing_ grace! How sweet the sound! That *saved a_ wretch like me!
w:2.~'Twas_ grace that_ taught my heart to fear, And * grace my_ fears re-lieved.
w:3.~Thro'_ man-y_ dan-gers, toils, and snares I * have al_read-y come.
w:4.~When_ we've been_ there ten thou-sand years, Bright, * shin-ing_ as the sun,
[V:T] A, | E,2 A, | A,2 G, | A,2 A, | A,2 A, | E,2 A, | A,2 A, | HB,2 |
[V:B] A,, | A,,2 A,, | A,,2 E, | F,2 D, | A,,2 A,, | A,,2 A,, | A,2 F, | HE,2 |
% Measures 8 - 14
[V:S] (B/ c/) | e2 (e/ c/) | A2 (F/ E/) |  A2 F | E2 (E/ F/) | A2 (c/ A/) | c2 B | HA2 |
[V:A] G | A2 (A/ E/) | E2 (D/ C/) | F2 D | C2 (C/ D/) | C2 (E/ A/) | G2 G | HE2 |
w:I once was_ lost but_ now am found; Was_ blind, but_ now I see.
w:How pre-cious_ did that_ grace ap-pear The_hour I_ first be-lieved!
w:'Tis grace hath_ brought me_ safe thus far, And_ grace will_ lead me home.
w:We've no less_ days to_ sing God's praise Than_ when we_ first be-gun.
[V:T] E | C2 (C/ A,/) | C2 A, | A,2 A, | A,2 A, | A,2 (A,/ C/) | E2 D | HC2 |
[V:B] E, | A,2 A, | A,2 A, | D,2 D, | A,,2 A, | F,2 E, | E,2 E, | HA,,2 |

Step 7: Play, Print, and Even More Resources

Wow! That wasn’t so hard!

You can play the tune, select which voice(s) to play, print it ([Ctrl]-P on windows) and experiment.

Try changing the tune header lines (V:S clef=treble name="") and enter something for the “name,” perhaps V:S clef=treble name="Soprano" Pretty “neat”!

The next step “Music Basics Refresher” is optional and has some background on music terminology that you might want to peruse to brush up on your music notation basics. It also has some links to additional abc resources.

I hope you have enjoyed this set of instructions and that you are well on your way to using “abc notation” to display and print music in the shape note tradition.

Sincerely KennyB

Step 8: (Optional) - Music Basics Refresher & Links

The abc language will assume we remember some basic things from our early music training. (You can skip this step if you already remember these!) A very abbreviated reminder is reviewed below, but don’t worry, you can progress through the steps in these instructions even if you don’t feel you’ve gotten back to 100% of remembering all of your basic music theory. Hopefully these brief sections will be helpful

The Staff, Clef, and Note Names

A staff is the five lines drawn horizontally across the page. Sheet music for four part vocal harmony typically uses a two staff system. The symbol at the beginning of a staff is the clef[4] . Figure 1 shows two staffs, the upper staff marked with a Treble clef will show notes for the Soprano and Alto voices and the lower staff marked with a Bass clef will show notes for the Tenor and Bass voices.

Figure 13 shows the names of the notes in the Treble clef (top) and the Bass Clef (bottom.) Your music teachers may given you these phrases to remember the names:

Treble Clef Lines: Every Good Boy Does Fine

Treble Clef Spaces: F A C E

Bass Clef Lines: Good Boys Do Fine Always

Bass Clef Spaces: All Cows Eat Grass

(See Figure 13 - Treble and Bass Clefs with note letters and mnemonics)

Notice that there is one line between the Treble clef and the Bass clef. This line is usually only drawn if it is needed. The first note in the upper staff in Figure 5 is “middle C”.

Note Lengths, Time Signature, and Measures

The “Time signature” is a method to indicate how many beats per measure and which note value has one beat. And, not all notes, of course, have the same length. Take a look at the following figure “Note Lengths, Time Signatures, and Measures.” Don’t worry if it is not all coming back to you, we will run into the concepts during our example and step by step build up our skills.

(See Figure 14 - Note Lengths, Time Signatures, and Measures)

Key Signatures

The Key Signature of a song is the set of sharps (♯) or flats (♭) placed together at the beginning of the staff right after the clef. The sharps and flats apply to any note on the line (unless overridden with a specific sharp, flat, or natural (♮, negates a sharp or flat.) You can use the chart below to look up the key of a song, or you can remember a few simple steps:

  • No sharps or flats - Key signature of C natural
  • One flat - Key of F
  • Flats - Note name that the 2nd to last flat is on plus “flat.” (i.e. 3 flats, 2nd to last flat is on E, so the key is Eb.)
  • Sharps - Note name that the last sharp is on plus a note. (i.e. 2 sharps, last sharp is on C, so the key is D.)

You will need to enter the Key Signature of the song, so either remember the “rules” or keep a look-up chart handy.

(See Figure 15 - Key Signatures)

Additional Resources

  1. Nils Liberg’s EasyABC - A downloadable abc program for Windows and Mac.
    Currently version / download location
  2. abcnotation.com - A starting point for a lot of information and downloadable tunes
  3. Tri-fold ABC Quick Reference by Stephen Merrony
  4. Public Domain Shape Note Tunebooks
  5. The ABC Plus Project by Guido Gonzato, Ph.D - An extensive reference to abc programs, resources, and a much more in-depth manual, "Making Music with ABC 2." This ebook has more extensive instruction on abc music, formatting programs, tips and techniques, and much more.
  6. projectnotions.com, The source of this set of instructions, and various other “projects.” Please visit our site and our other blog entries, movie reviews and music reviews relating to shape note music. note: projectnotions.com is a participant in the Amazon Services LLC Associates Program, an affiliate advertising program designed to provide a means for sites to earn advertising fees by advertising and linking to amazon.com.

  7. Best wishes in your musical projects!
    Kenny B.

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