System of ABC-Notation

by Albert Brennik



The system of ABC Notation is shown here with a few examples. The two main advantages compared to traditional notation are:


1. Instead of five traditional clefs, there is just one clef, the ABC Grand Staff.

2. There are no accidentals, because the staff is based on the chromatic scale.


The ABC Notation is built on the system of a graph, where pitch is shown on the vertical and duration on the horizontal extension.

Example 1: System of a graph


The ABC Grand Staff is a continuous octave scale. An octave is the eighth note of a diatonic scale (let us say C major); physically it is double the note's frequency (for instance the distance of the note a' = 440 frequency to a" = 880 frequency). In the grand staff the octaves are numbered 1 to 7 from bottom to top. As music usually develops around the middle octave, a special frame marks the middle octave no. 4.




Example 2: The ABC-grand staff


The chromatic scale, on which our system is based, has 12 notes in the octave. To represent these 12 steps, we need six lines and six spaces. With two octaves and 12 lines the situation is made readable by the omission of two lines in each six line staff and by putting notes in the now wider space on two ledger lines. Thus we have a four-line staff with two ledger lines for each octave. For clarity and ease of reading both of these two ledger lines have to be printed.

Example 3: The four-line staff for one octave


The four-line staff for two octaves

If in the course of the piece an octave extension is needed, another four-line staff can be added to the system.

Example 4: Staff extension


If there is not enough space for extending the staff system, the new octave number is framed and printed into the existing staff.

Example 5: Staves with octave numbers


In the ABC Notation the note C is always on the top line of the four-line staff. Thereby the chromatic scale follows as pictured in Example 6. The note A is situated in the middle space of the four-line staff.


For musicians who like to look at a keyboard when thinking of music, recognition is made easy: the bunch of three black keys on the keyboard, with the note F-sharp on the left or as the first key, matches the four-line staff with F-sharp on the bottom or first line.


As the scope of the human voice does not reach far over two octaves, we need only one or two staves to notate music for the human voice. The same is true for most of the orchestra instruments. For organ and harpsichord we need four staves and for the grand piano it can go up to seven staves. However, this practically never happens because it is very rare to play on the lowest and the highest octave at the same time. In principle, only staves where there are notes should be printed.









Example 6:

Note names

Example 7: Notes and rests


Duration is noted down on the horizontal extension of the graph, the run of the staff lines. In music duration is handled as a flexible entity; there are ritardandos and excellerations. Therefore on the horizontal extension we do not want a precisely measured indication of durational distances, but use the traditional note symbols. These are adopted and integrated into the chromatic notation, including the symbols for rests, bar lines and all other symbols and expression signs. The only change is the whole rest; this is depicted by doubling the half rest symbol, and floats freely in the space between two staff lines.

Example 8: Note stem


One important detail of the ABC Notation should be singled out: the new application of the note stem. Contrary to traditional notation where the note stem is only used up to the right and down to the left, in the ABC Notation the stem can also be used up to the left and down to the right. In piano music we make use of this possibility in two different ways.




As we have only one clef – there is no F-clef for the left hand and G-clef for the right hand – we use the note stem for marking the hands: stem to the right is right hand, and stem to the left is left hand.

Example 9: Voice leading


The second application of the note stem is for polyphonic music, especially for recognizing voice leading. In a four-part piece the bass always has the stem on the left, the tenor on the right, alto on the left and soprano on the right. The bass is the main indicator. Therefore, with a three-part piece, the soprano has the stem on the left.




Finally a few important remarks remain to be made. Making use of the traditional note symbols is quite a relief for professional musicians who will have to acquire two notations. They need only get used to the new staff system, which might take about four weeks of practice. Here are the words of the pianist Joachim Hess: “If I think back, in how little time (about 2 –3 weeks) it was possible to play your music and how easy it has been since then to change from traditional to your chromatic notation, and be it for one evening only, then in my view – there should be no substantial obstruction to introducing the new notation.” *


Composers might be grateful for the only change, the symbols for whole and half rest, because the old symbols, above or under the line, are not easy to place when writing fast.


Notwithstanding the fact that in ABC Notation more space is needed in the vertical extension, the usage of space on paper is generally the same as in traditional notation. This was the great surprise when the first music books printed in ABC Notation were published. Abolishing the accidentals generally saves so much space in the horizontal extension that it balances out the greater amount of space used in the vertical.




Example 10: Bach's grand staff


By arguing that five more notes in the octave will need more space on paper, many notation inventors have been mistaken. Even maestros such as Busoni and Schoenberg were not sufficiently well-informed in this respect: they did not know of or discarded the possibility of a grand staff. To save on space, the former had the higher octaves appear in smaller print and the latter squeezed three different half steps into a slightly wider space between the staff lines with the aid of angled ledger lines. The many inventors who sculptured the note heads into triangular or other shapes for indicating half steps are only mentioned in passing here. They apparently did not realize that a note is only a dot, a somewhat enlarged dot, on a line.


The fact that the grand staff is not a new invention at all seems to have bypassed the world of experts. Even in The Oxford Companion to Music you can read: “This is a fictional notational device rather unnecessarily introduced by musical pedagogues for explaining the clefs”. Apparently the knowledge had been lost that J. S. Bach, his family and circle of musicians were writing and playing harpsichord and organ music according to a grand staff system. They made use of a combination of F-clef with C-clef on the bottom line (soprano clef). The space between the two systems is made very narrow, and only the note B is placed into this space. This is a perfect grand staff in the old system.


Please compare with the manuscript edition (Faksimile-Ausgabe):

J. S. Bach "Orgelbüchlein" at Bärenreiter 1981,

J. S. Bach "Klavierbüchlein für Anna Magdalena Bach 1725" at Bärenreiter 1988,

J. S. Bach "Die Kunst der Fuge" at (VEB Deutscher Verlag für Musik Leipzig 1979) Musikverlag B. Schott's Söhne.


* From a letter 1991, after the song cycle "Blossom Time" had been performed three times.


In edition to this text a new website was created, an illustrated history
of the AB-chromatic notation:



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