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Basic information to get you started in ABCexplorer, an ABC Music Notation program for Windows operating systems.
This page was originally called "Using ABCexplorer in Win10" but
it equally applies to Win11.
A Very Quick Introduction
Updating The External
Getting Started in ABCexplorer
ABC Music Notation
An ABC Music Notation file is a representation of a piece of
music using simple ascii characters, meaning that each of its
elements is represented by one or two keystrokes on a computer
keyboard. It can consist of one tune, or many tunes. Here is an
example of ABC at its most stripped down basic, which is all that
many people require:-
T:Bacca Pipes Jig
c3 c2e|d2c B3|c2B A3|B2A G3|
c3 c2e|d2c B3|c2A B2G|A3 A3:|
|:g3g 2e|d2B G3|g3g 2e|a2f d3|
g3g 2e|d2c B3|c2A B2G|A3 A3:|
With a basic knowledge of standard Western Music Notation you
could write the same down with a pen and paper, and without the
aid of a computer. Big C is middle C, little c is an octave up and
so on. You can redraw it as notation with a pen onto a staff or
staves. As long as the characters can be read by humans the coding
can never be made obsolete by technology, nor captured by a
Using a range of free computer software this simple text can be edited, manipulated, turned into staff notation or a sound file, transposed to another key, transmitted over the internet or searched for by search engines. Links to video tutorials, software, and much else to do with ABC can be found on Chris Walshaw's ABC Notation Home Page
It is possible to use individual pieces of software separately in a pick and mix fashion, editing in one program and moving the file back and forth into others for midi conversion, for display, printing, transposition, as needed, but for ease of use most people prefer a one-stop approach, a single app like EasyABC or ABCexplorer, consisting of a front end Graphical User Interface with a text editor, and including a suite of third party software, called "software components" in EasyABC and "external tools" or "external modules" in ABCexplorer, all in one convenient download and accessed from within one app.
There are many resources and Chris Walshaw's video tutorials online about ABC Music Notation, which you can access via Chris Walshaw's ABC Notation Home Page, so the rest of this page is only concerned with the first steps of how to begin to use the program ABCexplorer.
I use ABCexplorer because I'm familiar with it and because it has some things which its competitor EasyABC doesn't, (and vice versa of course). It's a very popular 32-bit program for Windows PCs that's been around for a good while. It was designed for Windows XP but still works fine on 64-bit Win10 and Win11 - as long as you update the external tools - see below! Despite its age and its lack of one or two desirable functions (e.g. the ability to generate cheat sheets), ABCexplorer is an impressive and useful way of working with ABC.
However, ABCexplorer stopped updating itself, and importantly
its suite of external tools, with version 1.6.1 in about 2013, so
the versions of the required third party external tools you get
when you download it also date from that time, or even earlier.
There have been many improvements, updates to the standard and bug
fixes to these critical external tools since then, and you should
update them if you can. This is a very easy thing to do.
Not all musicians have computing skills as a second hobby, and we don't all have a techy-person to turn to for help, so I've made this short section to show how I do it. There are probably other ways. Geeks may look away now.
Updating is optional, you may find that you can get along fine
without bothering, but just bear it in mind if you are having
problems. The four critical external tools it would be a good idea
to update are abcm2ps.exe
(for display and printing), abc2midi.exe
and midi2abc.exe (for
dealing with midi sounds), abc2abc.exe
You can easily check your versions of these four main external
tools by going to the "Extras" drop-down menu on the main menu bar
of ABCexplorer and opening each tool in Console Mode. The
first line in the box tells you the version and date of the
particular software. This is also how you can check that you've
successfully updated them at the end of this process.
So you look in Console Mode and conclude that you want to update
the external tools.
On my machine these files are found where ABCexplorer was first
downloaded, at C:\Program Files (x86)\ABCexplorer\tools,
so find the equivalent "...\ABCexplorer\tools" folder on your PC,
which you now need to open.
Then go to http://abcplus.sourceforge.net/
From there you only need to download two zip files.
Scroll to "abcm2ps binaries", where you will find a
selection of zip files for different operating systems. I chose
the "Win32 binary for Windows without Pango support". (Pango
support is for some non-roman alphabets). Follow the link, which
takes you to another Sourceforge page that automatically downloads
the zip file to your computer. If it doesn't start to download
just go back to the ABCplus page and try again. At this point you
can make a new sub-folder within the "...\ABCexplorer\tools"
folder and call it "archive", or whatever, and move the
so-far-unopened zip file into that.
Next, for the second zip file go back again to http://abcplus.sourceforge.net/
Scroll to "abcmidi binaries"; again you are shown a
selection of zip files. I chose "Windows Binaries". Follow the
link, which should take you to another Sourceforge page etc., and
put it unopened into the "archive" folder (see above). The zip
files come with a date in the zip filename, and you should keep
them archived and intact.
Having done that, I should point out that actually you can put
them anywhere on the PC that takes your fancy, but they'll be
easier to find again if they're somewhere tidy in the
Now that you have the ingredients, you have to swap them for the
old files that you no longer require.
1. Go to the "....\tools" folder if you aren't already there and
remove the old files named abc2abc.exe, abcm2ps.exe, abc2midi.exe,
midi2abc.exe, and optionally abcmatch.exe, midicopy.exe,
mftext.exe, yaps.exe. The last four probably don't need replacing,
I'm not even sure what they are all for, but you may as well
replace them with the new ones bundled with the midi zip. Don't
delete them, make sure you have them backed up somewhere in case
the new ones don't work and you need them again. If you have
them still in a previous zip file that's OK, otherwise rename them
with an added date for reference and store them in the archive
folder you made.
2. Now open your new Postscript zip and you will see a whole mess
of files. Don't panic, you only want the one called abcm2ps.exe . Copy this,
don't move it, into the "....\tools" file from where you
just took the old one. Ignore all the other files in the zip, if
you're reading this none of them need concern you.
3. Now do the same with the Midi zip, and in there you will find
new versions of abc2abc.exe,
abc2midi.exe, midi2abc.exe and the other four
files you may have removed. Again copy them, don't move
them, into the Tools folder that you just removed the old ones
from. Again ignore all the other files, none of which need concern
That's it, all done!
The new files have the same names and are on the same path as the
old ones were, so ABCexplorer already knows where they are. Of
course, check that they work by looking at them in console mode. I
have known them to announce in the console that they are not
compatible with my operating system. This is invariably a bug in
that new version and quickly gets fixed at Sourceforge when
somebody reports it within a few days. In the meantime you can
replace the old ones and wait those few days for another update.
This is not another tutorial for ABC, just a very basic
introduction into how to begin to work with it in ABCexplorer.
The first thing to know is that there is a very comprehensive but
large Help file on the main toolbar of ABCexplorer, which goes
into all the functions in some depth. There are more functions
than you will ever need to know about. I'm only going to describe
enough basic operations to get you started.
Directories And files
Make A New File Or A New Tune
Import A File, Part Of A File, Or A Tune
Select And Edit A Tune
Print A Tune Or A Whole File
Print A Selection Of Tunes From Several Files
The Filter Tab
The Green Flask
The Refs Tab
Hopefully you've made a directory somewhere on your computer just for ABC files, even if there is nothing in it yet. This is where you put your new ABC files or your downloaded ABC files. Of course, you can make a whole tree-full of folders and sub-folders for your ABC files within this. You can tell ABCexplorer to always open this directory first when you are looking for an ABC file to open. On the menu bar is "Options" , and in there you will find "Directories and Files". Browse to your ABC files directory, "apply", "OK". You can change this later at will. Check the box to make backup copies of your files if you wish. Why wouldn't you? Don't bother trying to "link" the ABC files, it doesn't work in Win10 or Win11. Also under "Options" is "Miscellaneous", where among other things you can set your preferred language.
Load a file either by the "File" command on the menu bar or the
file icon on the toolbar. The file now appears in the top left
pane. This pane has three tabs, and you need to have the
"Explorer" tab open. You can load as many files as you like.
Expanding a file gives you the file header and the list of tunes
within the file.
Making a new file is fairly obvious using either the menu bar or
the toolbar icon, and the same for making a new tune within an
existing file. Not until you save your new file will it ask you
for a title and where you want to save it. It also has an option
to give it a "Convivial name" (you don't have to), which was an
option in the Option menu if you checked the box.
You can import a file, some or all of the contents of a file, or
a single tune by copying it to the Windows clipboard, making a new
file or opening an existing file in ABCexplorer, and going to the
"Import" command on the Menu bar, which opens a dialogue box.
One way to download a whole file is to open the relevant file in your browser and "copy & paste" either the entire contents, or individual tunes, straight into your ABC program as a "New file". However, be aware that some ABC programs if done this way will download only the tunes and strip out the "file headers", which may contain important formatting or contextual information. A better way is to have the browser download it for you, with the file headers intact. In Firefox and Edge for example you need to open the relevant file in the browser, either right-click or open the File menu drop-down box in the menu bar, click Save Page As to open the dialogue box. When you have downloaded the file and opened it in ABCexplorer make sure to "save as" with the file extension changed to .abc rather than .txt. You will now be able to open it from within your ABC program.
Single click on a tune title to select it. The ABC for the tune is now in the edit pane and the dots are in the display pane. Sometimes for some reason it refuses to open in the display pane and you have to select it again. The tune can now be played via the midi pane if you wish. Alternatively, double-clicking a title in the explorer pane immediately plays the tune, shows the ABC and displays the dots.
You can't edit the tune until you press the "Edit" button in the
edit pane, which brings up some editing tools. If you try to edit
without doing this, sometimes you get a helpful reminder,
sometimes you just get a bleep. When a tune is in Edit mode you
can access the Tune Tools dialogue box in the "Tools" drop-down
menu on the menu bar. Here you can transpose the tune, add chords,
and a number of other things.
When you've done editing a tune, your work isn't saved until you
press either "Accept" or "Cancel". Even then it's only saved to
the temporary RAM memory, so if you have a crash, outage, spill
your Guinness etc..... It doesn't automatically back itself up
every five minutes like Word, so it's a good habit to properly
save your work at critical intervals using the floppy disk icon on
the tool bar. Only then is the edited file saved to your hard
drive, and a BAK copy of the previous version is made.
If you checked the Backup box in Options while you were there you now have two versions of your file, the new one still called "...x.abc" and the old one now called "...x.abc.BAK"
A word of warning here, as an encouragement to keep saving your work to hard drive as you go. Sometimes if you try to do something unusual or heavy, you get a "Run-time Error" message. You cannot go back from this point, ABCexplorer closes down and everything you did since you last saved to the hard disk is forgotten! These may be bugs that have arisen because of sundry Windows updates, I don't know, but bugs haven't been attended to since 2013, so watch out and save regularly.
To print a tune, or a whole file, select it, go to the "File" or
"Tune" dialogues as appropriate and "Export Tune/or file", which
brings up some options. PDF will do multiple pages and produces
the clearest printing. You can make changes to size, layout and
fonts etc., within the "Page Setup" dialogue box that now
You have to load the required donor files into the Explorer pane.
Click and drag the tunes one by one, in the order
you want them to end up, into the "Temporary File" pane
at bottom left, (sometimes it doesn't want to work and you have to
persist, it's a knack). The selected tune is not removed from its
origin, only copied into a temporary file, as the name indicates.
Be aware that if you select a tune to edit in the Temporary List,
you are actually editing the source of the tune and not just the
copy. They will remain in the order you put them. From the
"Temporary File" drop-down choose "Export List", which takes you
to the "Page Setup" dialogue box. Note that the "Temporary File"
drop-down menu is greyed out until you select a tune from the
list; clicking on any tune will do it.
In the "Explorer" pane where you've loaded a file or files, is a
"Filter" Tab which is very powerful but complicated. Refer to the
Help file in the menu bar. You could search for all the tunes with
"Branle" in the title, in Key Gdorian, that also contain the notes
"CG", or even just a text string. (Don't forget to press "Cancel
Filtering" when you've done). The results of the filter appear in
the "Temporary File" pane. You may never need this!
A very useful tool, which does a limited number of the same things as the Filter Tab but in a more user friendly way, is the Green Flask icon on the toolbar. You can ask it to list all the tunes from the files that are in the Explorer window (I regularly have 12000 tunes in there) in alphabetical order, or sort into keys or meter for example. This is useful for finding needles in haystacks. Click to open the tune you want. From here there is also a button to export the results, an index for instance, as a text file.
Having reference material accessible from within the program in
the "Explorer" pane was a nice idea, but the contents have got out
of date and unfortunately it is not possible to amend the links
within the app. The "current" standard which it links to is ABC
2.1 from 2011. You can find and download a Quick Reference card
for this from http://www.stephenmerrony.co.uk/uploads/ABCquickRefv0_6.pdf
But the draft standard v 2.2 version (from 2013) has largely been
implemented, indeed overtaken, already. Go to Chris Walshaw's ABC Notation Homepage, or
straight to the v2.2 wiki at http://abcnotation.com/wiki/abc:standard:v2.2
for the draft v2.2 (2013), which has significant changes and
additions. You can either "Bookmark" this for viewing online, or
"Save As" for viewing offline. You can save it somewhere easy of
access in a folder called e.g."ABC Guides"
However, even this has not been updated since 2015 so you would
be better served by keeping abreast of the latest version of the
ABCPLUS manual. It's not an official standard but all the
functions it describes are implemented by the software components
that ABCexplorer uses, as long as you keep on top of the external
tools updates. To get this go to the ABCPLUS page and
download the "abcplus_en_(<latest date>).zip" file to your
"ABC Guides" folder and unzip the PDF. Again, pop it in your "ABC
There is a Groups.io ABC Users Group
There is a Facebook ABC
Notation Users Group
For ABCexplorer specific help there is a manual within the
That should be enough to get you going. Good luck.
Chris Partington, 2022
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