This first post in our Music Theory Series by OAIM tenor banjo and mandolin tutor Paddy Cummins, explains how ABC Notation is utilised in our courses and helps you understand how each symbol relates to a corresponding musical feature. We have sheet music available to download for all tunes taught in our courses in both standard and ABC notation. ABC Notation was created originally for those who can’t read standard notation music sheets, it is a text-based music notation system, “the de facto standard for folk and traditional music”. We hope you enjoy this in-depth study of ABC notation, furthermore we hope it serves your journey of discovery and learning.

“It’s a great tool to understand and use for a specific purpose but Irish music does not live on paper” – Paddy Cummins

Before starting, I would like everyone to bear in mind that there is no standard form of ABC notation, per se. Irish traditional music has mostly existed as an oral tradition where the tunes are passed on by ear. One musician learns from another by listening and imitating rather than from reading notated staff music. It is still mostly the case today that proficient Irish traditional musicians will learn by ear, either in person from a teacher or friends, or indirectly from sound and video recordings. But despite the emphasis on ear-learning many publications of high renown have been circulating within the Irish tradition for decades e.g. O’Neill’s 1001, Ceol Rince na hÉireann (Breathnach), Goodman Collection etc. Although many Irish musicians cannot, even to this day, read staff notation, a sizeable cohort can and do. It is a useful aid for documenting particularly rare or interesting tunes and for passing on the tune during times when sound recording was limited or even non-existent.

So where does ABC notation fit into this atmosphere?

Using staff notation has proved a valuable learning aid, particularly in recent times where it has become more accepted. Although never revered as a replacement for ear-training, it can abet one’s efforts to learn by ear when the brick wall won’t come down. The issue, of course, is that many people look at staff music like a foreign alphabet and find it an arduous task to learn how to read it properly and that’s where ABC notation fills the void.

Rather than bars and lines, ABC notation translates all of the rudiments on the stave into letters (which refer to the actual melody note) and various punctuation symbols to determine the rhythm and timing.

ABC notation DOES NOT attempt to translate every detail that can be brought across on staff notation (e.g. ornamentation, grace notes etc) but, rather, it dumbs down the sheet music into its basic form of melody and timing.

This is enough to give the learner a starting point for understanding the melody. Then, if the learner wishes, they can consult the sheet music for extra information regarding technique or, better still, listen to the teacher or audio recording and use their ear to imitate extra bits within. Do note, also, that there is a form of ABC notation in existence which is often seen, in some capacity, as a ‘standard’ and is written using numbers and letters to determine the note length.

You’ll see a bar, for example, written like this:


This is the first two bars of the reel, The Sally Gardens. ‘2’ refers to a crotchet or quarter-note. The capital letters refer to the range of notes from middle C onwards. The small letters refer to notes one octave higher. THIS IS NOT THE ABC SYSTEM WE USE AT OAIM. Although initial courses included this kind of notation, we found it a little less intuitive for the student and, in any case, this notation is aimed at those using ABC programs (e.g. ABC Navigator). This form of ABC is used like code and input into the program after which the sheet music is available to view as well as other features. What we are working with at OAIM, however, is my own version of ABC notation, taking different elements from a variety of ABC sources I’ve seen and used over the years. Hopefully I’ve done a good enough job in making it simple and intuitive!

The Initial Information Slot

At the head of every piece of ABC notation are several lines of information. This idea is taken from the “standard” ABC notation talked about in the above paragraph. We have the following pieces of information provided:

TUNE TYPE: This refers to the kind of tune we are dealing with e.g. reel, jig, hornpipe, polka, slide etc.

KEY/MODE: The “key/mode” is an important section in these documents and one that you should always pay attention to. Most traditional musicians, when referring to the modality of a tune, will use the term “key” instead of “mode” and the vast majority of current ABC notation at OAIM just uses this term. I have begun using the “mode” signifier as well as this is technically more correct but, regardless of the wording, it relates to the same information

The first part of the information is a letter which determines the quality of the key/mode. This could be anything from A to G with a corresponding sharp (#) or flat (b) symbol. The flat symbol is not to be found on a QWERTY keyboard so hence we make use of the small letter ‘b’. After the key quality the mode is noted. This is usually one of four different modes (Major, Minor, Dorian or Mixolydian). Now please don’t be put off by these terms which may be novel to you. If you understand them, well and good. If not, the next section will provide all of the information you need to know. Here you will find, in brackets, the notes which are altered from the natural scale. So, for example, if you see the key/mode noted as “G MAJOR” and are unfamiliar with what that actually means, just refer to the notes in brackets to help you along. In this case, you will see “(F#)” which is telling you that all of the notes you see in the notation are natural (i.e. not flats or sharps) except for the “Fs” which are ALL F#. I didn’t notate every sharp and flat as it would look too cluttered and also make accidentals less easy to spot. I have refrained from using the mode terms “Ionian” and “Aolian” and, instead, refer to them as “Major” and “Minor” respectively. This is just a matter of simplicity taking precedence over technicalities.

TIME SIG: The time signature refers to the rhythm and timing of the tune. For example, reels, hornpipes and barndances will be in 4/4 or common time. You can expect these kinds of tunes to be notated in groups of four notes. Jigs will be in 6/8 and are written in groups of three notes. Pay attention to slow airs too. It is not possible to accurately notate a slow air as the rhythm is free and up to interpretation. This will be indicated as “FREE RHYTHM” and the notation is merely there for helping with the melodic notes. For slow airs, if a rhythm is indicated it may just be for the sake of writing the melody notes in some structured fashion but is not intended to be followed with any degree of accuracy if followed by the phrase “FREE RHYTHM”.

COMPOSER: The vast majority of tunes at OAIM are traditional tunes. They are 150-300 years old and the composers are unknown. However, some tunes have been written in more recent decades by prolific composers of the music and, to pay heed to their work, I’ve included them where possible.

PARTS AND REPEATS: So after you’re armed with the basic information for the tune, next you will find the first part heading with either (X1) or (X2) written beside it. This simply refers to whether you play the first part straight through and then go into part 2 or if, instead, you go back and repeat part 1 again. The first part is referred to as the A-part and the second part is the B-part. Usually tunes are either played in the AB form (first part once, second part once) or the AABB form (first part twice, second part twice) but some are more unusual and might be played as AAB or ABB.

If a part is to be repeated you may see an alternative ending notated at the end of the part. This will be indicated by a [1 and [2 symbol. On the first pass through the part you play what is notated after [1 and then repeat from the beginning. On the second pass through you disregard what is written after [1 and, instead, play [2 before moving into the next part of the tune.

Many tutors will vary a tune on the second or third time through. I’ve only notated one, basic version of the tune’s melody as taken from the tutor’s simple outline at the beginning of a lesson. I leave it up to you, the student, to focus on the differences that the tutor will guide you through on subsequent repeats.

Finally, it’s time to look at the notes themselves. They are straightforward alphabetical letters which refer to each scale degree. As a starting point, let’s look at the note letter D. This refers to an open D string on a fiddle, banjo or mandolin. It is the low D on flute, pipes and whistle. Basically, it’s the D just above middle C on a piano but for instruments like the tenor banjo, which is one octave lower than the fiddle, this is not strictly true. This is the lowest note that can be notated without the use of apostrophes or commas.

For notating the C, B, A and G below this D we use a comma after the note. For example, the note “B,” refers to the B on the G-string on fret four of the banjo or in that position on a fiddle. It is not possible to reach any of these lower notes on the flute, tin whistle or pipes (although certain flutes do have low-C keys as an option). Since the fiddle and banjo cannot go below “G,” (the open G-string) we generally don’t use any lower notes in the Irish music tradition although, occasionally, an accordion version of a tune might slip a note or two below “G,”.

The highest “unpunctuated” note is C. This refers to the C one octave above middle C. It is found on the A-string on a fiddle, banjo (fret 3) and mandolin and is the C natural cross-fingered note on tin whistle and flute. For the D note above this C we use an apostrophe i.e. “D'” and so forth up the scale as far as the next high C’ (above high B on the E string on fiddle, banjo and mandolin). In the very rare circumstances where a tune goes as far as the next octave D, I use two apostrophes to notate it i.e. D”.

Sometimes accidentals are notated also. These will be in three forms: sharp (#), flat (♭) or natural (♮). This means that, although the “key” may stipulate that the only sharps in the tune are F# and C#, the rules are broken at certain points. If a C or F occurs that is not sharp (i.e. it is natural) it will be notated as C~ or F~. Similarly, if the key stipulated that all notes are natural but an F sharp occurs at one point, it will be notated as F#. As would a B flat be notated as Bb if the key otherwise stated that all other Bs were natural. The ‘~’ symbol is not the correct signifier of a natural note in terms of western standard notation but, as the correct symbol was not readily available to me during the compilation of earlier courses, I took the liberty in using the aforementioned symbol. Subsequently, I discovered how to incorporate the correct natural and flat symbols on my word processor so further ABC notation will use them but don’t be confused by the common use of the “~” across the OAIM resources. When an accidental occurs, any repeat occurrences of this note letter are assumed to be of the same quality as the accidental until the end of the bar. From the next bar, the note letter returns to match that of the key. Let’s look at bars 2 and 4 of Chief O’Neill’s Hornpipe as a good example:

Bar 2: C♮AD’B CAGC

Bar 4: C♮AD’C# A- D’E’

Chief O’Neill’s is noted as a hornpipe in D major implying that all Fs and Cs are sharp. In bar 2, we see an accidental C natural. The other C notes in this bar are also assumed to be natural with any Cs occurring in bars thereafter presumed sharp.

In bar 4, an accidental C natural occurs again but, this time, it’s followed by a notated C sharp. Even though the key signature stipulates that any “non-accidental” Cs are presumed sharp, this C occurs in the same bar following a naturalised note. In this case, we must put the C# symbol in to show this return to the key. Those familiar with western staff notation will be familiar with this practice.

Finally, there are timing marks notated beside certain notes. A note on its own implies an eighth- note or quaver. So “GABG” is four quaver notes in a row. One hyphen (-) notated after the note changes it from an eighth note to a quarter-note or crotchet. “GABG A- BG” implies four quavers, one crotchet and two more quavers. Some would play this “A-” as an ornament of some kind e.g. a short roll on fiddle or flute. Two hyphens implies a dotted-crotchet which can be played as a long roll. Three hyphens is a half-note or minim. Four hyphens is a dotted minim and five hyphens is a semi-breve. These last two are rarely used except in slower tunes or waltzes, marches and similar.

You might see, in polkas specifically, certain notes underlined which implies a quick run of notes common to these tune profiles. These are semi-quavers (aka sixteenth notes) and are half the length of a regular quaver beat. Generally, they occur as a four-note run e.g. BCD’B or within a three-note group consisting of a quaver and two semi-quavers e.g. E’D’E’

Also in polkas you will see the full-stop (period) used at times. In this case, I am referring to a note which is played as a dotted quaver but what is important to bear in mind is that, also implied, is that the following note is a semi-quaver, NOT A QUAVER, even though it is notated no differently. Think of the full-stop as a two-note package. So, “G.A BG EG ED” from Terry Teehan’s Polka tells you that the first G is slightly longer than the other notes in the bar but it also tells you that the A note after the dotted G is half the length of a regular quaver note.

The only other symbol you will find in ABC files is a “(3” symbol which tells you that the following three notes are played as a triplet. This is, essentially, three notes in the space of two quavers and played in quick succession.

Footnotes: If there are any specific details that are important to note for a particular tune in relation to the course, there will be footnotes below the notation. Keep an eye out for these.

Always remember that ABC notation is provided as a tool to help you on your way to improving your performance practice. However, it is not a SUBSTITUTE for ear-learning and keen listening. You must always be listening to Irish music and, if learning a specific tune, pay attention to all the details that your tutor is giving you. Try learn by ear as much as possible, even if its just a few notes to begin with. Use the ABC to get you over the line. But don’t become dependent on ABC or staff notation. You lose so much spirit from the tune by avoiding listening intently to all the little details. So remember: it’s a great tool to understand and use for a specific purpose but Irish music does not live on paper. Communal sharing of tunes, playing sessions, listening to records and learning from established players is far more worthy of your time.

Please don’t hesitate to get in touch if anything else needs clarification. You can post a comment below, or members can hop on to the forum to post your questions.

Happy practicing!

Paddy Cummins, OAIM tenor banjo, mandolin tutor and sheet music maestro!


7 responses to “How to Read ABC Notation”

  1. Leonie Curran Avatar
    Leonie Curran

    Thank you Paddy.
    I’ve enjoyed learning to basically play my octave mandolin, using your online lessons, and as an older adult who never learnt to read or play music, l struggle to work the notes out then l play more by ear. The tabs are easiest, showing me which string and fret, and l wish all the pieces loaded to OAIM had these.
    I will try to get a hang of the ABC notation!

    1. OAIM admin Avatar
      OAIM admin

      Dear Leonie
      Thanks so much for hopping on to comment. It’s great feedback for us that you find the tabs easiest for mandolin, we’ll definitely take it into consideration. The fact that you play by ear puts you ahead of the posse as that’s really how its done in the Irish tradition, so well played!

  2. Phil Wilson Avatar

    Dear Paddy,

    Thank you for your excellent article regarding abc notation for writing tunes.

    I play concertina and have always learned by ear. I developed a 123 notation for quickly writing down tunes in sessions. Around 40 years ago I was at the Willie Clancy School and first came across what I call traditional abc which you describe above.

    I recent years I have been using digital abc, EasyABC on my computer and Tunebook, Tunepal and the Craic in my smartphone.

    As you say no written or digital form can ever even start to replicate the subtleties and nuances of a tune and learning by ear is the only way to get the lilt and expression. I have, however, found digital abc very useful for a number of reasons, it is very easy to share with others, to keep your own library of tunes that can be searched and to quickly enter and playback a tune as a reminder..

    When playing a concertina there are many different ways (button sequences) of playing a tune and I have found that it is important to experiment to find the best button and bellows direction to achieve the lilt and flow that I want. I have also been studying the way the real masters play their tunes especially the ornamentation they use. I use abc extensively for recording different versions of tunes and the notes of the ornamentation that is added. Digital abc is very capable in this regard.

    Having said that, traditional abc is, of course, widely used amongst traditional musicians so your article is very useful. If it is alright with you I would like to put a link to it from my website.

    Warm regards and thank you again,

    Phil Wilson

    1. OAIM admin Avatar
      OAIM admin

      Dear Phil
      Thank you for this wonderful, informative comment. Paddy will see it and may even want to reply himself. On the question of linking to this blog from your website, yes of course you can, and thank you for asking. There’ll be more from Paddy soon,(another blog in this series) so stay tuned!!

  3. Marge Avatar

    After a lifetime of traditional note reading, I find I prefer to see the printed music, in conjunction with listening and learning the tune by ear. The ABC method you have explained is very complicated to me, but I’m glad you posted this because I’ve seen this type of notation and couldn’t quite understand it. Now at least I get what the numbers and lower case mean. So thank you!

    1. OAIM admin Avatar
      OAIM admin

      Thanks for your comment Marge. We’re happy that the post has been informative for you.

  4. Paddy Cummins Avatar
    Paddy Cummins

    Hi all. Thanks for the comments and I’m glad the article has been informative. Particularly good to hear feedback regarding digital ABC. I understand its benefits but have not seen much use of it over the years. Maybe my forum-based observations are rather primitive and we could consider a survey!

    By all means link to your website.


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