Morris Dance Notation using abc

abc is a musical notation system developed by Chris Walshaw. It is in widespread use for the transmission of folk music via ASCII text, and there are numerous programs which convert the abc source code into beautifully typeset score and/or audio outputs.

One of these abc client programs is abc2ps by Michael Methfessel <>. Starting with version 1.2.4 abc2ps implements an experimental extension to the abc language (w:) which permits alignment of lyrics with notes.

This extension can be applied to the problem of communicating the notations of folk dancing; i.e., stepping and hand motions. In particular, it is demonstrably applicable to morris dancing.

Applicability to Morris Dance Notation

Historically morris dance notation has been done by typesetting (or handwriting) abbreviations of foot stepping and hand motions under and over the musical score. This was the methodology originally employed by Cecil Sharp in the Morris Book, and it has been continued in one form or another in almost all subsequent publications for teaching the morris.

In June of 1997 Norman Stanfield of the Morris Dancing Discussion List started a thread on the problem of jigs with slow capers. The existing notation for the musical transitions into and out of slow caper sections has rarely been precise enough to communicate exactly how a tune might be played. In many cases the exact nature of the pattern of stepping is equally ambiguous. Thus there is variation in the interpretation of the dances.

The existence of variation is not a bad thing, the morris has plenty of room for interpretation. However, it has been effectively impossible to discuss these variations by any means other than personal demonstrations by a dancer/musician pair or videos thereof. Attempts to discuss jig slows via e-mail proved nearly incomprehensible due to the combined uncertainty of music and stepping.

Norman Stanfield's posting caused me to realize that the aligned lyrics of abc could also be applied to this problem of morris dance. If one starts by creating abc code which reproduces a particular interpretation of the music, it is then possible to add the other elements of the morris dance using the experimental ``w:'' syntax of abc2ps.

At this point my right brain interrupts and advises (actually what it says is, "Shut up and dance!") that this technology is not useful to dancers who dance using the right brain. However it is deeply satisfying to dancers whose left brain demands involvement.


I am currently at the proof-of-concept stage in doing this, and there is yet work to be done even on the existing examples. I want to see if this might become a widely-used method for transmitting morris (and other folk-) dance technology.
The Nutting Girl (FieldTown)
The first effort ever at doing this. I have the abc source code, a gzipped PostScript file, and a GIF demonstrating the output from abc2ps. This uses the tune from Bacon (which nobody plays so simply) and my own haphazard notatation for the stepping.
Glorishears (Bampton)
I have the abc source code, a gzipped PostScript file, and a GIF demonstrating the output from abc2ps. This uses the tune from Bacon, the stepping from Sharp's Morris Book, and some words gleaned from MDDL postings during 1997 June.
The Nutting Girl (Bampton)
This is the fifth iteration of an ongoing experiment between myself and Norman Stanfield. I've never done Bampton slows, and there are many variants in use. Using abc we now have a common vocabulary, and we have converged on this representation of the dance. Comments, and Questions:
The music is almost as indicated by Sharp and Bacon. This tune is from Bacon and is the Jour EFDS 1928 tune published under FieldTown. Some long notes (mostly in the C parts) have been split into tied notes so that the stepping can be shown on the right sub-beats.

The ending of the B part has been lengthened by a beat; it thus corresponds to the Rollo Woods version. This lengthening seems to satisfy stepping and musical demands for Bampton and FieldTown; we believe that Bacon has a transcription error in that last bar of B. An alternative resolution would be to insert a quarter-note rest at the end of the B (or perhaps the beginning of the C). However, the solution we chose re-establishes the parallel with the musical notation used for the Nutting Girl jig.

Step and Caper (SC)
It is possible that there should be no instances of SC (except at the very end). Postwar Bampton practice seems to have replaced all SC by HC.
Part C1 with Upright Capers (UC)
These are the newer (slower, postwar, 1 and one-half bar) form of UC as seen in Bacon. Sharp has the (quicker, earlier, one bar) form of caper with "straddle". (Perhaps this C might be better notated in 6/4 time?)
Part C2 with Forrie Capers (HC)
Note that this representation has what might be interpreted as 8 HC, whereas Sharp's representation of an equivalent slow in Princess Royal has only 7 HC. The HC in the two representations are out-of-phase by 180 degrees. Here the strong beat of the stepping seems out-of-phase with the first beat of each bar. (Perhaps this C might be better notated without the bars of 2/4 time?)
Of particular concern are the bars at the end of the B and beginning of the C parts.
My analysis of the results of this collaborative experiment:

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Steve Allen <>

Initial deployment: 1997-06-25
Updated: 1997-07-10