Up until this point, I’ve written most of my music using Lilypond.

I’ve switched from using Frescobaldi to just writing it in Emacs with a pdf viewer open to monitor compiled progress. I’ve switched from writing everything in concert pitch to writing to the instruments I’m using. But that apparently isn’t enough for me, because now I am adding ABC Notation back into the mix.

Before I learned how to write in Lilypond, I learned ABC. It is simpler, more universally supported, and designed with traditional and early music in mind (The two genres I tend to play the most)… So it was a fairly easy choice. But, I quickly found that it was mostly good for teaching and preservation, not for creating music someone might listen to or for writing scores of any kind.

That’s the main reason I moved to Lilypond in the first place: ABC simply couldn’t do what I wanted- and in some ways needed- it to do. For instance, writing out banjo tablature would have been nearly impossible in ABC. So would composing a 5 minute long, 8 instrument score: ABC simply isn’t the right tool for that. So, I abandoned ABC and moved to [Lilypond][lilypond] shortly thereafter, and hadn’t looked back until recently.

Now, I think I’ve found a use for ABC in my workflow.

See, when I compose something, I am coming from a mostly Traditional Music background. So, to me, the melody line is of the utmost importance: That is, the unembellished, straightforward, basic theme of the piece. Even in pieces like Sky Will Forget the Brilliant and Nubivagant, it all started with a melody line and worked out from there.

But, see, the problem I’ve been having with that is that most of my pieces follow the all-too-familiar form of Irish music: ABAC, and then either a second form or repeat. Which, I mean, there is nothing wrong with that: It works, especially in pieces like Calea Victoriei and High Resolutions. But I don’t want to lean on something because it’s all I know. I want it to be a conscious choice.

So, I need to branch out. But, I still like starting with a melody, in the same way that a baker likes to start with a yeast sponge and an artist likes to start with preliminary shapes.

In comes ABC Notation. Since it is built specifically to target a melody (and actually has an in-built function for structured repeats like ABAC), it is very easy for me to write a melody out in. And then, because I am so limited to just the melody line (and chords/lyrics, if I want), I’m forced to keep it simple and clean.

Once the melody has been completed in ABC, I can then let it rest and percolate a bit, along with any variations or related themes I might want to include alongside it… And then, once I have that idea down, I can compose how a group of instruments might actually choose to embellish, arrange, and play the theme (and write that out in Lilypond.

It slows my process down by a fair margin, but so far it’s produced a higher-quality finished product, in my opinion. And, when it comes to my own work, I really do care about the quality, in the end… So, I think it’s a positive switch.

If You compose music, what is Your process? Do You start with chordal structure, melodic theming, or something different? And, on the off chance You are familiar with either of the software suites referenced above, what do You think of them? I’d love to hear Your stories in the comments below.

Categories:  music 
Tags:  abc notation  lilypond  emacs