The English Hymnal - Wiki Music Experiment/Simpletextnotes

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Simple Text Notation

In this method, we simply enter in notenames and durations in a format which is close to Lilypond and which makes importing into Lilypond very easy.

Here's a simple scale in D major of 1/4 notes: d4 e4 fis4 g4 a4 b4 cis4 d4

  • Notenames: we use lower case letters c d e f g a b to represent notes. For rests we use r.
  • Durations: we use numbers 1 2 4 8 16 32 to represent durations and the period . to represent dotted durations
  • Flats and Sharps: we use suffixes es to represent flats and is to represent sharps. (It's Dutch -- Lilypond's country of origin)
  • Barlines: we use | to represent barlines of any design.

Using the conventions above, we have:

 cis4    = c-sharp quarter note (crochet)
 d2      = d half note (minim)
 ees2.   = e-flat dotted half-note (dotted minim)
 g1      = g whole note (semi-breve)
 c\breve = c double-whole note (8 beats, a breve - yes it does occur in the hymnal!)
 a8      = a 1/8 note (quaver)
 b16     = b 1/16 note (semiquaver)
 r4      = a quarter note rest
 r1      = a whole note rest

An Example

Here's a highly unmusical piece of music:


And here is how it is notated in simple text:

 soprano = d2 fis4 g8 a8 | cis8 cis8 dis8 dis8 d2 |
 alto = d2 e4 fis4 | a2 a2 |
 tenor = d2 ees4 fis4 | g4. e8 e4 r4 |

 bass = bes1 | bes2 r2 |

That's all. You'd be surprised how easily that becomes Lilypond and what a great help this is to the Lilyponder. Just remember a few things:

  • We want the four vocal parts notated separately.
  • No need to indicate octaves. Middle-c, high-c, c in any octave is still just c.
  • No need to indicate slurs, beams, ties, articulations and so on. (If you know how to, consider jumping into Lilypond!)
  • Flats and sharps have to be indicated explicitly, even if the flat/sharp symbols don't show up on the image because they are implied. This is a Lilypond peculiarity. Just imagine you are playing the piece on a keyboard. Do you have to hit a black key? If you do, you have to add the "is" or "es" suffix.

What if there's more than one notehead on a stem?

  • At times, especially in unison hymns, you may have difficulty distinguishing 4 "vocal" parts. Use stem directions as a clue - if you see upwards stems on the upper staff, put the notes in the soprano section. Downwards stems on the upper staff, put them into alto. Similarly for the lower staff, upstems are tenor, downstems are bass.
    • You may find more than one notehead on a stem. These are coded like this <c g>2 - c and g half notes on the same stem. On even <c e g>4 - three crochet noteheads on the same stem.
    • If a vocal part is missing - there are only three noteheads, and three stems, pad the missing vocal part with a spacer note thus: s4 (for a missing crochet).


  • Avoid the plainsong pieces and any others which say "in unison" (where there are more than one noteheads on a stem). There are lots of others to do which are simple.
  • (Thanks to KenJ for this idea) It may be easier to use a spreadsheet to enter the notation since that helps to line up the notes in oolumns.
    • Use other symbols to replace the pipe symbol |, for example you could use / or x
    • Choose lower case symbols to avoid needing to hit the shift key too often
    • When finished, export the spreadsheet as a comma-delimited file.
    • Symbols can now be swopped for the correct ones with search and replace, the commas can easily be removed, and you are there!


  • There are slight complications with plainsong. Plainsong pieces comprise a plainsong staff and then the regular 2 SA/TB staffs.
  • The hymnal uses beamed minims as well as normal minims (white notes of 1/2 note duration). Both the beamed and unbeamed minims have the same duration.
  • The problem is that music notation software such as Lilypond will only agree to put a beam on notes of quaver (1/8) duration or less.
  • What to do? We use quavers but dress them up to look like minims by changing the noteheads and removing the tails while allowing the beams where they occur.
  • So since minims (1/2 notes) are treated as quavers (1/8 notes), all durations are divided by 4. See the following examples:
 C-stemmed white note (was c2) = c8 
 C-beam-E white note           = c8 e8
 stemless white note G (was g1) dividing by 4 = g4
 dotted stemless white note A (was a1.)       = a4.