The Mudcat Café TM
Thread #122270   Message #2679876
Posted By: Mick Pearce (MCP)
14-Jul-09 - 09:04 AM
Thread Name: BBC Radio 4 features abc
Subject: RE: BBC Radio 4 features abc

I don't think I've ever been brought to a state where I've said this before on Mudcat (though I've often thought it - I usually consider it waste of time trying to have a proper discussion here - I kept out of the university degree course arguments, though I am massively in favour of them. I normally confine myself to posting songs and information about them), but what a load of bollocks.

The system of notation commonly recognised as abc was the invention of Chris Walshaw; simple and accepted fact.

It is different from standard music notation, but is capable of representing pretty much anything that can be done in standard notation. Certainly any rhythm that can be expressed in standard notation can be expressed in abc (including, in later versions, compound time signatures, multiple voices and a host of other things. I wouldn't want to do many of them in abc, but it is possible).

Learning by ear is not a comparison you can make with a notation system. They serve two different purposes. All notation systems (standard included) are approximations to what the musician is meant to reproduce from the score. They rely on the musician knowing what the unwritten implications of the score are. Bach's contemporaries looking at the relatively unadorned scores he wrote had to know what dynamics were expected where and what ornaments were expected, without them being written in the score. There were stylistic elements not in the score that the musician had to know to interpret it correctly. (The Early Music movement spent a lot of energy researching those unwritten nuances). Learning tunes by ear fulfills that same function - there are stylistic elements of rhythm and ornamentation that you learn by ear.

Notation (of any kind) has a different purpose - it is to record the tunes/songs to enable people who have no chance of hearing them (people far away in distance or time), to be able to play them. Most of the time the notation is incomplete - it would be too time consuming to notate everything exactly (Some modern scores do attempt to do just that, but they are exceptionally hard to follow - trust me I know whereof I speak). To say that learning by ear is what should be done would be to say that all literature should be heard orally and memorised. How much literature would anyone ever know if that was the case? The invention of printing was not considered a brilliant idea for nothing. You can read far more than you can ever hope to hear recited and the same goes for music.

Learning by ear is a great skill; the vast amount of tunes I know I learned by ear in sessions, as probably most of the song tunes I know; but not all in either case. Modern classical musicians are better at this than they used to be too - it's not all from the page. But it's only one aspect of music.

Finally abc is not meant to replace standard notation - it has a different purpose. abc is text-based and concise, whereas standard music notation on the computer requires relatively (or even definitely) expensive, dedicated packages and produces, by and large, proprietary format files. Only with some take-up of musicXML has another text-format for music been more widely available (musicXML is not the only one - there were several attempts to define standard text-based formats, but most have fallen by the wayside). But musicXML has two disadvantages compared to abc - it's extremely verbose and it's not very human-readable. The advantage of abc are that the format is very concise and it's simple enough for a human to read (and even play from - which I have rarely done). That's the reason why abc was taken up so widely. You can get away with nothing more than a text editor.

I converted (programatically, I add) the entire DT to abc. Why? Because I can put the whole thing into a simple data base, tunes and all. I could have saved the Songwright files there (they are also text based), but Songwright is definitely a minority format (and also more verbose, and not as versatile as abc). I already have tune database with thousands of abc tunes in. The databases could store links to other format files (or binary objects of other format files) - Sibelius docs, scanned images - but the effort to create those would have been enormous.

I am a proficient standard notation reader (I'm a licentiate level classical guitarist), but I still use abc for a lot of things, even though I have Finale on my computer. For recording single line melodies it's quick and simple and a brilliant idea. On the abc related web-sites you'll find examples of Beethoven scores and other things that I wouldn't dream of using abc for; when I want to write classical guitar music I use Finale, not abc. Horses for courses.

I have no vested interest in abc, it's just a tool I use, like many others. But try and have some proper appreciation of what it's for.