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May 06, 2008

Smultron and LilyPond

Regular readers will know that I'm a great fan of Barfly, a great .abc reader for the Mac. And, in fact, a great fan of abc, the simple music file format that's very popular with folk tune collectors. Barfly's now been upgraded to work fully with Leopard. It's splendid for dealing with long abc files with many tunes in; it plays them really well, and it generates sheet music instantly.

However, nobody could claim that Barfly's printed output is beautiful. For that we turn to LilyPond, a Free Software music engraving program. The output from LilyPond is exceptionally lovely; the program has been designed from the ground up to make elegant sheet music. LilyPond itself is not exceptionally lovely; it's a command line program. It once had a nice Mac gui front end, but this has broken in Leopard. Instead, it's now supported on the Mac with a tiny bit of Applescript. So you do have to roll up your sleeves to use LilyPond at present. And although LilyPond includes an abc2ly converter, I can't make it work. Hand-coding from scratch is taking me about ten minutes a tune at present (this for 'ordinary' 32 bar English tunes). So I will not be producing a 2000 tune tunebook any time soon. But for tunes I'm actually learning, it's fine. In fact, it's causing me to think about the ways in which the abc that I'm working from is different from the tunes as played by the better melodeon players around me.

LilyPond has a reputation for fearsome syntax; I had little trouble with straightforward tunes, but as soon as I tried tunes with chords or books of tunes, I started to struggle. It's worth persevering though, because when it does come right the results are spectacular. I'm not exactly stretching it, with easy monophonic tunes. The most complicated thing I've coded so far is a You can use LilyPond to produce multi-part orchestral and choral scores. But you might die in the attempt.

At heart this is a markup language, and for that you need a text editor. Plokta famously uses SubEthaEdit for collaborative working, so I hadn't tried other text editors. The text editor of choice for LilyPond is Smultron, which is a lovely Maclike editor that supports LilyPond syntax colouring. I'm not exactly a power user of text editors, but this appears to me to be both easy for beginners to use, and has some key features (like keeping track of nesting). For some reason the Mac isn't overly provided with good, free text editors, so it's nice to find one that's actively supported.

Posted by Alison Scott at May 6, 2008 06:30 PM


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