Transcribing non-bagpipe tunes for the pipes

No recordings here guys, just a post about an easy way to see if a non-bagpipe tune fits on the pipes, and how to get sheet music for it without working very hard at it. Gone are the days of listening to some mp3 or YouTube video of the tune and working it out by ear; sure to be soured by wrong notes and wasted hours. With a little bit of help from some nifty software, you can have it done in 5 minutes (or more, sometimes)!

1. Google “_insert_tune/song_name_here_ abc notation”, e.g. “Gaudeamus Igitur abc notation”

2. Click through a few links until you come across one that has abc notated code for the tune/song you’re looking for, e.g. for our example above, this link.

3. Copy the ABC code in the box found on your webpage. For this particular example tune, it is no where near the range of the bagpipe scale as it is currently notated, so we proceed to step 4, otherwise if it already fits go to step 5.

4.  Paste the code into the window on this website and click “tune up” or “tune down” to change the key the tune is in. The range of the bagpipe in ABC notation is GABcdefga. So press up or down until most of the notes, if not all, are those notes for the bagpipe. Capitalization counts!!! Hopefully, you end up in the key of D, shown as “K:D” (D major) in the ABC code. Other keys you can shoot for are A major and G major, though they have their caveats. If you end up in “K:A”, hope there are no Gs in your tune as A major denotes an additional G sharp whereas our Gs are natural. If you end up in “K:G” hope there are no Cs because ours is a sharp, but G major has a C natural. Of course, if you’re an adventurous type and like to mess with alternate fingerings for accidentals, by all means. If you’re transcribing something like an Irish tune, you’ll frequently find one part fits really well on the pipes, but the other doesn’t, so you’re left with transposing only one part, or one part and the ending phrase. For our example tune you press “tune up” 8 times and the ABC code will now read “K:D”. Copy this new code.

5. Go to this website and paste your new code into that little box and click submit. Viola, you now have a pdf, midi file, and jpg available of your new sheet music. Of course, there are many ways of getting sheet music out of an ABC file, and if you decide to use ABC to typeset all your bagpipe music, I would highly advise installing an ABC editor. These usually render the sheet music as you go along and then allow you to print the score. One of the most popular pieces of software for rendering abc is abcm2ps, and many editors use this as a back end to their main graphical interface. If you’re a Linux type and find your ABC not fitting well on the page, I would advise the following options, landscape and flatten the grace notes:

abcm2ps -f -l -O

This gives you a postscript file which does not play nice with Windows at all, hopefully if you’re on windows you’re using an editor and that take care of the details of getting a pdf out of your ABC code for you. Otherwise, if you’re on mac or linux, ps files are no problem. Preview in Mac will convert it to a pdf when you double click to open the file and linux has ps2pdf, so no problems there.

Alrighty, so I’ve left you with some sheet music in some crazy notation language called ABC with no grace notes and when rendered to pdf/jpg has big notes with stems that go up instead of down when they’re high on the clef. First thing’s first. Whatever key your tune ended up in, if you want it to look like bagpipe music, change the key from whatever it is now to read “K:HP” or “K:Hp”, the former removes the key signature indicators from the clef and makes it look like bagpipe music, the latter does the same but indicates the A mixolydian nature of the bagpipe scale. Well, time to learn ABC! Just kidding. If you already have some bagpipe notation software, the majority of them allow you to import ABC files. If you don’t have that kind of software, you can always just print out the pdf and hand write your embellishments. Or you can learn ABC. It is really easy! Andrew Lenz has a handy section of his website devoted to bagpipe notation in ABC and I have a few links (and a BMW/BWW to ABC translator) on my website as well. ABC is way easier than BMW/BWW, trust me! Faster than writing it out by hand too, which can’t be said for BMW/BWW.

But now you’re going to say, “but Patrick, I can’t find any ABC code for the tune/song I’m looking for!” Aha, right you are, copyright and such often leaves us with the requirement to buy standard, non-bagpipe sheet music and do it all by hand from there. Even non-copyrighted tunes suffer from this on occasion. Well, there is one more thing to try! It’s a little program called midi2abc. Pretty straightforward really, it turns midi files into abc notation. So, go google for your tune/song with the word midi added to the search. Midi is just some electronic way of representing, and then playing some series of notes. midi2abc just turns it into ABC notation for you. Nifty eh? Not so fast you say, midi files are often multi-voiced with bass parts and drums parts overlapping with the main melody. Well, never fear, you can grab individual parts from midi files with midi2abc. The syntax is as follows:

midi2abc -f midi_file.midi -c 1 -o

where the number after the c tells the program which track or voice number out of the midi file to grab. Just loop over all the voices and you’ll get each individual part and you can figure out which part is the one you’re looking for, and then apply the transposing transformation to get it in a suitable key for bagpipe play. I recently did this, despite being a Texas Tech graduate, for the Texas A&M fight song, “Aggie War Hymn.” I will say however, that midi2abc isn’t perfect, or at least the midi files I had didn’t result in the cleanest output from midi2abc.

In reality, what I did was the last trick I’m going to share with you. Own an Apple computer? Yes! Have Garageband installed? Yes! Oh, you don’t? You just had to be a sheep and buy Windows. Of course you’ll tell me I’m a sheep for buying Mac, and yes I am. Just a smart sheep, instead of, well, not. Alright, I’ll stop insulting people who still rely on Winblows. Just open a new Garageband file and drag and drop your midi file into some empty space where there is currently no instrument.  Click on the scissor looking button and then on the note button to get the actual sheet music, read straight from the midi file, as opposed to the piano scroll. Now, this will require you to manually write the dots down from the Garageband rendering, be it in ABC or by hand, but Garageband is quite good at importing midi files, better than midi2abc in my experience so far. That being said, garbage in, garbage out. If your midi file was poorly made by who ever did it, that can’t be helped. I tell you what is hard though: trying to figure out one part from an mp3 file that has multiple voices all going at the same time from a 50 member brass band. Whew, that’s tricky! I’m still working on that one. There is some software out there that will map the note frequencies over time for you given an audio file, but I have no experience using those. Might as well plop down the dough for that sheet music if you can find it. Time IS money, after all is said and done.

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