Back to Bits & Bobs
Back to Homepage
This page is basic information intended to get you started in ABCexplorer.
A Very Quick Introduction
Updating The External Tools
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 are 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 the coding can never
be made obsolete by technology nor captured by a commercial
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. Links to 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 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 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 PC that's been around for a good while, but still works fine on 64-bit Win10. 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 external tools it downloads also date from
that time or even earlier. There have been many improvements 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 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
(for transposition). 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. This is also how you can check that you've
successfully updated them at the end of this process.
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 to that.
Next, for the second zip file go back 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.
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 without making 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 put
them in the archive folder you made.
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 where you just
took the old one from. Ignore all the other files in the zip, if
you're reading this none of them need concern you.
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 and
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 good 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 at will. Check the box for making 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. 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. When you save your new file it will 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 some or all of the contents of a file, or a
single tune by copying it to the Windows clipboard, opening a new
file or 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 a "New file" within your ABC program. 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 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 make sure the file extension is 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. 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 it saved it to your hard drive.
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, 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 2003, so watch out and save regularly
To print a tune, or a whole file, select it, go to the "File" or
"Tune" dialogues 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 and fonts etc.,
within the "Page Setup" dialogue box that now opens up.
You have to load the required 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. Be
aware that if you select a tune to edit from 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; 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". (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 some 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 is 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 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 Guides" folder.
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, 2020
Back to Bits & Bobs
Back to Homepage