Breandán Breathnach's indexing system
within the abc format

Breandán Breathnach introduced a system of indexing traditional tunes back in 1977.

By 1985 he had over 5000 tunes indexed. This manual index (5000 cards !) is still available for consultation at the Traditional Music Archive in Dublin. In an article called Between the Jigs and the Reels published in Ceol V,2 (March 1982), Breandán Breathnach described why such a system was needed, how the system worked, and how he had developed it.

To use this system, a numeric "code" is created, based on the first two bars of a tune. Only beats and off-beats are considered. A note equal to the keynote would take the value 1, a third would take the value 3, and so on. For instance the code for Miss McLeod's reel is 13533333. As far as I know, Breandán Breathnach had no access to a computer, but his system is very much computer-oriented.

At the present time, a great number of tunes are available on the web in abc format (See Chris Walshaw's abc home page for an introduction to the abc format). Tunes are searchable by title, thanks to Chris Walshaw and his web-wide abc index and tunes beginning with a certain sequence of notes can be found in his thematic index.

Using a sequence of notes is not always the best way to search for a particular tune. As traditional music is not, by essence, a written music, the differences between many versions or interpretations could alter the results of the search. Added to that, the abc code could be written in different ways while still generating the same musical output.

To demonstrate the validity of Breandán Breathnach's approach to indexing tunes, I've downloaded around 3000 tunes from various collection on the web, imported them into a database (dBase IV.2), created a program to automatically generate Breandán Breathnach's code within the database, and finally generated a number of abc files based on the four first digits of Breandán Breathnach's code. The original source on the web has been added to the "S:" field. Some of the tunes are tunes I transcribed myself.

This is primarely an experiment and some of the tunes are not imported perfectly into dBase IV, especially when the ABC syntax is not correct or when some unexpected line breaking occurs. There are also a few duplicates. To not disseminate tunes which may be wrong, the index is not accessible for the moment.

So far, Breandán Breathnach's code is notated as a comment, using the "%" symbol. If the abc community finds this new feature useful, one of the remaining letters of the abc format could perhaps be used in the future.

Thanks for telling me if you find this useful and if you think of any improvements of the system.