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A Trio of Internet Stars: ABC Musical Notation
Sally Driscoll

For traditional musicians who use the Internet, life has become easier and a bit sweeter thanks to the ever-expanding, never-ending amount of available resources. Yet there are some sites that are used over and over; they shine brightly in the online traditional music universe, but we know little about their creators. I felt that it was time to acknowledge a trio of Internet stars who have touched fiddlers' lives deeply: Chris Walshaw, John Chambers, and Andrew Kuntz.

Walshaw plays bagpipes, whistle, and flute and teaches computer science and math at the University of Greenwich, England; Chambers plays the accordion, fiddle, mandolin and flutes, and is a software designer and computer programmer in Boston; and Andrew Kuntz plays the fiddle, button accordion, and mandolin, and is a mental health outpatient program director in New York. All three play in dance bands. They have never met each other, yet their musical passions and technical acumen allowed them to each create different web resources that are so intertwined it's as if they were lifelong, intimate members of the same band.

Many readers may recognize their names or popular web sites. Chris Walshaw created ABC music notation (see sidebar at right), that spurred technically-savvy musicians around the world to create and share a variety of ABC software and/or post their tune collections in ABC format. His web site is considered the home of ABC and is typically the first stop for anyone dabbling in ABCs. According to Google, there are over 400 sites that link to this home page.

Andrew Kuntz created The Fiddler's Companion, a database that provides engaging information about traditional fiddle tunes including the origin, known variations, recorded and print sources, and ABC notation. For the past several years, Ceolas, the Internet's "home of Celtic music" has hosted the database, and according to their latest statistics, the database receives thousands of hits every day.

John Chambers created JC's Tune Finder, an ABC search engine that returns a variety of file formats, including .gif and .pdf, from approximately 300 ABC web collections. Statistics show an average of 6,500 searches a day, with as many as 15,000 recorded one day.

It's fair to say that these web resources have impacted significantly the history of the transmission of traditional music, by allowing fiddlers to increase their repertoires of traditional tunes at unprecedented rates and contemporary tunes before they are even recorded; by offering quick and easy exposure to different genres, styles and techniques from around the world; and by offering simple access to a variety of historical information that will increase the fiddler's knowledge base and provide for a well-rounded approach to music.


I interviewed each musician in winter 2003 so that readers could become more familiar with the humans behind the sites.

Chris, you note on your web site that you introduced ABC in 1991. Did you design ABC by yourself or was it a collaborative effort?

Chris Walshaw: No, it was just me, although there have apparently been alphabetic music notation systems used informally for many years by all sorts of musicians.

Which came first, your computer knowledge or ABC notation?

When I first invented/discovered ABC notation I didn't even know how to turn a computer on. ABC was first designed purely as a shorthand aide-memoire, with no thought of computers at the time. When I did first start implementing it as a program, it was just for my own use. One of the things that I've always worried about slightly with ABC is that people will see me as a computer geek who dabbles with music rather than a musician who happens to know how to use a computer (which is how I think of myself.)


John, how did your tune finder come to fruition?

John Chambers: The music area is interesting, because there's a lot of "music" online. But we have a problem in the English language. We don't have any way to distinguish "music" that you put in a player and listen to from "music" that you put on a stand and read. Try it with any search site, and you'll find that this is true. Readable music is buried under 100 times as much information about recorded music, and there are no good keywords to distinguish them. If you want to find the readable music, you need something more specialized than the keywords that the big sites use, so you can weed out all of the irrelevant sites that are talking about recorded music. I wrote it (The Tune Finder) because I'd noticed a growing number of web sites with music in ABC form, and I'd also noticed that the big search sites aren't very good at handling this sort of data. This isn't really much of a criticism, because they were designed to handle ordinary text. But it's frustrating if you're a musician. So I decided to write my own specialized search program. This made it easy to find other people's tunes. Then I mentioned it to a few friends.

Can you explain how The Tune Finder works, so that everyone can understand?

As with any search site, there are two stages. There is a "search" program that has a list of starting URLs. It starts at those and follows links, looking for files with ABC tunes. It builds a small database listing the URLs, tune titles, keys, and so on. Then there's the lookup web page. It takes what you type, looks it up in the database, and shows you the matching tunes. And then there's the third stage, in which you can request a conversion from ABC to that list of other formats.


Andrew, was the Fiddler's Companion (F/C) originally in print?

Andrew Kuntz: The F/C has never been in print. It was created as an electronic medium from the outset, when I started indexing in 1986 on an old used Apple II machine. I wanted to retain the feel of a print medium, however, and deliberately chose to do the project on a word processing program rather than a relational database program as I wanted to retain the look and feel of print in an electronic format. I was looking for a more "encyclopedic" feel since I was turned off by how database formats were presented. I think the F/C is perhaps "warmer" because of that, but I've sacrificed some important search, query, and report functions because of the choice. The "encyclopedia" feel has been important to me, however, as I wanted the F/C to be a repository for lore and not just data. The shape, scope, and value of lore seems antithetical to relational database schemes, to me, and I've seldom met a fiddler who wasn't as interested in fiddle lore as they were in the music itself.

Tell me more about the background of the F/C.

In 1986 I self-published a collection of old-time songs and tunes called Ragged But Right on my Staggerin' Willie Music Publishing label. (Staggerin' Willie is the name of the protagonist in a song by the old time band the Chicken Chokers.) I had enjoyed researching and transcribing music for the book so much that I wanted to do something similar, something to do at home that I could pick up and put down as parenting allowed, a project that would have some breadth to it, and I wanted to be able to incorporate interesting stories, background information, speculations and even oddities and absurdities that have become attached to traditional fiddle music. In those first few years I began shaping the F/C according to my own, perhaps idiosyncratic background. I was a musician and had an interest and background in music history; the contextual relationship of music in a particular culture and time. I also was highly influenced by my clinical social work background, taking me further into exploring relationships and influences between tunes embedded in both (tune) families and subject to the vicissitudes of cultural exchange.


What is ABC?

ABC is a code, or language, for notating tunes in an ascii format, made popular thanks to the ease and speed which tunes could be shared via the computer. ABC files can be deciphered without software, which is especially handy for non-computer users or situations where transcription software such as ABC2win is not available. Transcription software, typically freeware or shareware, can produce sheet music and midi files from the ABC format without a large investment of time and energy.


An example of "Irishman's Heart to the Ladies" in ABC from The Fiddler's Companion:

T:Irishman's Heart to the Ladies

|:a|ecA BAF|AFE EFA|Bdc BAB|cBB Baf|ecA BAF|AFE EFA|Bdc BAB|cAA A2:|

|:B|c>ee dff|c>ee ec>A|cde eaf|ecA B2A|cee dff|cee ecA|B/c/dc BAB|cAA A2:|

Stellar Sites:

Andrew Kuntz's The Fiddler's Companion:
John Chambers' (JC's) Tune Finder:
Chris Walshaw's ABC Home page:

ABC tutorials:

John Chambers': Mansfield's:

Examples of popular ABC collections (in addition to the collections available at the above sites):

Cranford Publications (Cape Breton and Scottish tunes):

Henrik Norbeck (Irish and Scandinavian tunes):

Richard Robinson's TuneBook (English, French, Balkan, Irish and more)

Mentioned in the article:

John Adam's Village Music Project:

[For the full text of this article, purchase the Summer 2004 issue of Fiddler Magazine!]

[Sally Driscoll is a librarian at Penn State Altoona and has been playing the fiddle for about five years. When she's not fiddling, she's requesting fiddle books and videos through inter-library loan, searching online for tunes, or planning her next workshop or fiddle camp.]