Why is ABC Notation not ABC…?

When we read we begin with


When we sing we begin with Do Re Mi

–“Do, a Deer…” THe Sound of Music

Western music has coalesced around the major scale. Which is really a pity, because western music notation was built around the natural minor scale.

A. B. C. D. E. F. G. No sharps or flats added.

And yes, when people write software tools, they are so indoctrinated into “Major scales” that we make tools like ABC notation (which I adore, by the way) that breaks in the middle of the ASCII sequence. The example on the landing page shows it right up front.

GABc dedB

See that jump between B and c? That is a half step. See that wrap around from G to A? That is a whole step.

If, instead, the developer had been using A minor as the basis, it would have looked like this:

Gabc dedb

It would have been in ASCII order as well as semantically arranged from lowest to highest.

Why do I care? I wrote a tool to generate music using ABC notation, and the amount of code I had to write to get around this particular eccentricity was annoying.

When I learned the modes, it went with Ionian, Dorian, Phrygian, Lydian, Mixolydian, Aeloean, Locrian …and thus “no sharps” “Two flats” “Four flats” “one sharp” “one flat” “three flats” “five flats.” Which seems a little unbalances. If we start with A natural minor and no flats, then the sequence is 0, 2flats, 3sharps, 1sharp, 1flat, 4 sharps, 3 flats. Or, If organized by the number of accidentals:

  • 4 sharps lydian
  • 3 sharps Ionian
  • 2 sharps mixolydian
  • 1 sharp dorian
  • 0 sharps/flats Aeolean
  • 1 flat phrygian
  • 2 flats locrian

This is the sequence from “brightest to darkest” or “most major to most minor.”

It is still a bit unbalanced…if Dorian were in the middle it would be evenly distributed. If we were building around the harmonic series, Mixolydian would make the most sense, and then the only mode with 4 accidentals would be the Locrian, which is the most extreme mode anyway.

Of course…it would have been even better if those ancient monks had been ignored and instead we wrote music where the major scale started on A.

But considering what we have, using the natural minor as the basis makes for a much simpler notation.

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