Author: Matthew Leonawicz
License: MIT

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The tabr package provides a music notation syntax and a collection of music programming functions for generating, manipulating, organizing and analyzing musical information in R.

The music notation framework facilitates creating and analyzing music data in notation form; i.e, more from the perspective and in the language of a musician than, say, an audio engineer.

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Music data structures

Music data can be viewed, manipulated and analyzed while in different forms of representation based around different data structures: strings and data frames. Each representation offers advantages over the other for different use cases.

Music syntax can be entered directly and represented in character strings to minimize the formatting overhead of data entry by using simple data structures, for example when wanting to quickly enter and transcribe short pieces of music syntax in R into sheet music or tablature files. You can also enter sound and time together for the music class, and no need to repeat consecutive durations until a change.

x <- "a, c e g# a ac'e' ac'e'~ ac'e' a c' e' a'"
x <- as_noteworthy(x)
#> <Noteworthy string>
#>   Format: space-delimited time
#>   Values: a, c e g# a <ac'e'> <ac'e'~> <ac'e'> a c' e' a'

#> <Noteworthy string>
#>   Timesteps: 12 (9 notes, 3 chords)
#>   Octaves: tick
#>   Accidentals: sharp
#>   Format: space-delimited time
#>   Values: a, c e g# a <ac'e'> <ac'e'~> <ac'e'> a c' e' a'

y <- "a,8 c et8 g# a ac'e'4. ac'e'~8 ac'e'4 at4 c' e' a'1"
y <- as_music(y)
#> <Music string>
#>   Timesteps: 12 (9 notes, 3 chords)
#>   Octaves: tick
#>   Accidentals: sharp
#>   Key signature: c
#>   Time signature: 4/4
#>   Tempo: 2 = 60
#>   Lyrics: NA
#>   Format: space-delimited time
#>   Values: a,8 c8 et8 g#t8 at8 <ac'e'>4. <ac'e'~>8 <ac'e'>4 at4 c't4 e't4 a'1

#> $notes
#> <Noteworthy string>
#>   Format: space-delimited time
#>   Values: a, c e g# a <ac'e'> <ac'e'~> <ac'e'> a c' e' a'
#> $info
#> <Note info string>
#>   Format: space-delimited time
#>   Values: 8 8 t8 t8 t8 4. 8 4 t4 t4 t4 1
#> $lyrics
#> [1] NA
#> $key
#> [1] "c"
#> $time
#> [1] "4/4"
#> $tempo
#> [1] "2 = 60"

Functions exist for directly performing various mathematical, logical and organizational operations and musical transformations on strings like the one above by checking their music syntax validity and adding custom classes and methods to these strings (more on this below). tabr offers special object classes that facilitate working with music data and notation in ways that are natural to R, robust, tidy, and lend themselves well to transcription as well as analysis.

Of course, none of this will work on character strings that are not “noteworthy” or “musical”, for example. Invalid, unworthy syntax is rejected early with an error, preventing corrupted music syntax from causing unexpected issues later on.

The same music data can also be organized in tidy data frames, allowing for a more familiar and powerful approach to the analysis of large amounts of structured music data.

x <- "a,8 c e r r c a, g#, a ac'e'"
as_music(x) %>% as_music_df()
#> # A tibble: 10 x 14
#>    duration pitch note  semitone octave  freq pitch_int scale_int slur  slide bend  dotted articulation annotation
#>    <chr>    <chr> <chr>    <int>  <int> <dbl>     <int> <chr>     <chr> <lgl> <lgl>  <int> <chr>        <chr>     
#>  1 8        a,    a           57      2  110.        NA <NA>      <NA>  FALSE FALSE      0 <NA>         <NA>      
#>  2 8        c     c           48      3  131.         3 m3        <NA>  FALSE FALSE      0 <NA>         <NA>      
#>  3 8        e     e           52      3  165.         4 M3        <NA>  FALSE FALSE      0 <NA>         <NA>      
#>  4 8        r     r           NA     NA   NA         NA <NA>      <NA>  FALSE FALSE      0 <NA>         <NA>      
#>  5 8        r     r           NA     NA   NA         NA <NA>      <NA>  FALSE FALSE      0 <NA>         <NA>      
#>  6 8        c     c           48      3  131.        -4 M3        <NA>  FALSE FALSE      0 <NA>         <NA>      
#>  7 8        a,    a           57      2  110.        -3 m3        <NA>  FALSE FALSE      0 <NA>         <NA>      
#>  8 8        g#,   g#          56      2  104.        -1 m2        <NA>  FALSE FALSE      0 <NA>         <NA>      
#>  9 8        a     a           57      3  220.        13 m9        <NA>  FALSE FALSE      0 <NA>         <NA>      
#> 10 8        ac'e' ace         57      3  220.         0 P1        <NA>  FALSE FALSE      0 <NA>         <NA>

Several functions are available for mapping seamlessly between and manipulating these data structures and their representations of musical information.


Music programming in the notation syntax provided by tabr can be used for a variety of purposes, but it also integrates cohesively with the package’s transcription functions. The package also provides API wrapper functions for transcribing music notation in R into guitar tablature (“tabs”) and basic sheet music using LilyPond.

LilyPond is an open source music engraving program for generating high quality sheet music based on markup syntax. tabr generates LilyPond files from R code and can pass them to LilyPond to be rendered into sheet music pdf files. While LilyPond caters to sheet music in general and tabr can be used to create basic sheet music, the transcription functions focus on leveraging LilyPond specifically for creating quality guitar tablature. You do not need to use it for guitar tablature, but for vocal or other instrument tracks, you can change settings, such as suppressing a tab staff from your sheet music.

While LilyPond is listed as a system requirement for tabr, you can use the package for music analysis without installing LilyPond if you do not intend to render tabs. You can even use the lilypond function to write LilyPond files to disk without the software installed, since this is only a case of R writing plain text files in the proper format. The only functions in the package that require a LilyPond installation are tab, midily, miditab and any render_* functions.

Use case considerations

tabr offers a useful but limited LilyPond API and is not intended to access all LilyPond functionality from R, nor is transcription via the API the entire scope of tabr. If you are only creating sheet music on a case by case basis, write your own LilyPond files manually. There is no need to use tabr or limit yourself to its existing LilyPond API or its guitar tablature focus.

However, if you are generating music notation programmatically, tabr provides the ability to do so in R and offers the added benefit of converting what you write in R code to the LilyPond file format to be rendered as printable sheet music.

With ongoing development, the music programming side of tabr will likely continue to grow much more than the transcription functionality.

Why LilyPond for transcription?

LilyPond is an exceptional sheet music engraving program.

Transcription functionality and support

The tabr package offers the following for transcription:

MIDI support

The package offers nominal MIDI file output support in conjunction with rendering sheet music. MIDI file writing is still handled by LilyPond, which means it must be based on a valid LilyPond file output created by tabr.

You can read MIDI files into R. This support relies on the tuneR package to read MIDI files and attempts to structure the MIDI data to integrate as best as possible with the data structures and functionality found throughout tabr.

An existing MIDI file can also be passed through directly to LilyPond to attempt to create sheet music from the MIDI file if possible, using one of LilyPond’s command line utilities for MIDI to LilyPond conversion followed by rendering the generated LilyPond file to sheet music.


Upcoming v0.4.0 release

Music data analysis has been expanding significantly since version 0.3.0, which brought many new functions to tabr. Version 0.3.5 brought even more as well as an alternative input format for guitar tab transcription.

The upcoming version 0.4.0 is a huge release. There is so much more in terms of data analysis. There is also better MIDI file support. There are more functions for tidy analysis. Several internal and user-facing functions have been vectorized. Other functions have been generalized that previously lacked an approach to chords in certain contexts. The entire package has been significantly optimized for better performance over previous versions.

More can be done with music notation syntax converters, moving to and from data frames, and between classes. New classes noteinfo and music have been added along with accompanying functions. Support for triplets have been integrated into noteinfo using the t-prefix notation, which is supported in turn now by music and by phrase.

Since it’s still in early versions, several aspects of the package and its approaches to working with musical information have been reimagined, corrected, enhanced and made more resilient while keeping to the simple syntax and premises.

All things considered, the next release of tabr is the one to use. You can get many of these developments now by installing version from GitHub, which all the current online documentation is updated for (this document, the pkgdown website, help files and vignettes).

Install the CRAN release of tabr with


Install the development version from GitHub with

# install.packages("remotes")

Noteworthy strings

As a quick introduction and to get oriented to the music notation syntax offered by tabr, consider the concept of a noteworthy string. This is like any other character string, except that what makes a string noteworthy is that its content consists strictly of valid tabr music notation syntax. It can be parsed unambiguously and meaningfully into a musical phrase (see next section) and can be processed as input to the various package functions that inspect and manipulate musical information.

A simple character string like "c e g", or alternatively as a vector, c("c", "e", "g"), is a noteworthy string. The single lowercase letter "a" is noteworthy. So are "a_" and "a#" (flat and sharp). However, "A" is not, nor is "z". There are other pieces of valid syntax than just the lowercase letters a through g and sharp and flat notation. The most important for specifying pitch is to indicate the octave number, either in tick (recommended; comma and single quote) or integer format (not recommended, more limited utility). For all the available syntax specifications and related details see the package vignettes.

Noteworthiness can be checked on any character string. When defining noteworthy strings you can define them like any other character vector. However, you will notice that package functions that operate on noteworthy strings and whose output is another noteworthy string will yield a string with the supplemental noteworthy class. This has its own print and summary methods. Several other generic methods are also implemented. While many functions will attempt to coerce a string to noteworthy, not all will and some methods are implemented specifically for the class.

x <- "g#, c d# g#c'd#'"
#> <Noteworthy string>
#>   Format: space-delimited time
#>   Values: g#, c d# <g#c'd#'>

x <- "g#2 c d# g#c4d#4" # equivalent octave numbering
#> <Noteworthy string>
#>   Format: space-delimited time
#>   Values: g#2 c d# <g#c4d#4>

#> [1]   NA   NA   NA TRUE
(x <- transpose(x, 1))
#> <Noteworthy string>
#>   Format: space-delimited time
#>   Values: a2 c# e <ac#4e4>

#> <Noteworthy string>
#>   Timesteps: 4 (3 notes, 1 chord)
#>   Octaves: integer
#>   Accidentals: sharp
#>   Format: space-delimited time
#>   Values: a2 c# e <ac#4e4>

#> <Noteworthy string>
#>   Format: space-delimited time
#>   Values: a2 c# e a c#4 e4
distinct_pitches(x) %>% pitch_freq() # in Hz
#> [1] 110.0000 138.5913 164.8138 220.0000 277.1826 329.6276

There is also a noteinfo class and a music class. You can learn more in the vignettes. The music class is particularly useful for efficient music data entry and basic transcription tasks.

Tidy music analysis

Ideally music data already exists in a data frame format. But if it doesn’t, or if you just wrote out a new note sequence like below, getting this data into a data frame for a more tidy approach to analysis is easy. Conversion can also populate several derivative variables in the process.

In the earlier example you saw the result of calling as_music_df on a noteworthy string.

x <- "a, c e r r c a, g#, a ac'e'"

You may have noticed that rests (r) are allowed for timesteps and that functions that compute lagged intervals respect these gaps. Since all that was provided to as_music_df was a string of pitches, there are no time variables in the current data frame. However, discrete timesteps still exist and they do not have to contain notes.

There are a number of derivative columns. If you are working with a large sequence of music, there is no need to carry all of these along through your analysis if you do not need them. They can be created using various package functions and you can build onto your data frame and transform variables later with mutate.

x <- "a, c e r r c a, g#, a ac'e'"
tibble(pitch = as_vector_time(x)) %>% 
  mutate(scale_int = scale_diff(pitch))
#> # A tibble: 10 x 2
#>    pitch      scale_int
#>    <notwrthy> <chr>    
#>  1 a,         <NA>     
#>  2 c          m3       
#>  3 e          M3       
#>  4 r          <NA>     
#>  5 r          <NA>     
#>  6 c          M3       
#>  7 a,         m3       
#>  8 g#,        m2       
#>  9 a          m9       
#> 10 ac'e'      P1

In fact, it’s much more powerful to create the columns according to your needs using specific functions and their various arguments. But as_music_df is convenient and also offers some additional arguments. Adding key and scale allows for scale degrees. scale is diatonic by default but does not have to be.

x <- "g g#"
as_music_df(x, key = "am") %>% 
  select(pitch, key, scale, scale_deg)
#> # A tibble: 2 x 4
#>   pitch key   scale    scale_deg
#>   <chr> <chr> <chr>        <int>
#> 1 g     am    diatonic         7
#> 2 g#    am    diatonic        NA

as_music_df(x, key = "am", scale = "harmonic_minor") %>% 
  select(pitch, key, scale, scale_deg)
#> # A tibble: 2 x 4
#>   pitch key   scale          scale_deg
#>   <chr> <chr> <chr>              <int>
#> 1 g     am    harmonic_minor        NA
#> 2 g#    am    harmonic_minor         7

tabr offers many functions for manipulating and analyzing music data and working in music notation. See the collection of vignettes for more information on music programming and analysis.

Basic transcription example

Rendering sheet music is based on building up pieces of musical information culminating in a score. The fundamental object to consider in the transcription context is a phrase. A phrase is created from a noteworthy string and incorporates additional information, most importantly time and rhythm. It can also include positional information such as the instrument string on which a note is played. Outside of rendering tabs, there is no reason to construct phrase objects. Everything from the phrase object on up is about using the R to LilyPond pipeline to render some kind of sheet music document.

If you are doing music analysis on noteworthy strings and are combining the note, pitch or chord information with time, that can be done with a corresponding variable; using a phrase object is not the way to do that because phrase objects are intended for the construction of LilyPond markup syntax.

As a brief example, recreate the tablature shown in the image above (minus the R logo). Here are the steps.

The code is shown below, but first some context.

Constructing a musical phrase

A phrase here does not require a strict definition. Think of it as the smallest piece of musical structure you intend to string together. The first argument to phrase is a string describing notes of a specific pitch (or rests: “r”), separated in time by spaces. For chords, just remove spaces to indicate simultaneous notes. Integers are appended to indicate the octave number so that the pitch is unambiguous. For example, a rest followed by a sequence of notes might be given by notes = "r a, c f d a f".

The second argument is a similar string giving note metadata. In this example there is nothing to add but the time durations. Whole notes taking up an entire measure of music are given by 1, half notes by 2, quarter notes 4, eighth notes 8, and so on. To specify a quarter note rest followed by a sequence of eighth notes, use info = "4 8 8 8 8 8 8" (or shorten to just info = "4 8*6"). This basic example does not require specifying additional note information such as dotted notes for different fractions of time, staccato notes, ties/slurs, slides, bends, hammer ons and pull offs, etc. These specifications are covered in the vignette tutorials.

The third argument, string only applies to fretted string instruments and is always optional. In this example it specifies the strings of a guitar. Providing this information in conjunction with the pitch fixes the frets so that LilyPond does not have to guess them. This only applies for tablature output. Note that the x shown below is just a placeholder indicating no need to specify a string for the quarter note rest. You can put a string number there but it is ignored.

Explicit string numbers are not needed for this example since is uses lowest fret numbers (the default). They are provided for a more complete example.

This is the general approach, but there are multiple ways to create equivalent phrase objects in tabr.

Score metadata and accessing LilyPond

Finally, specify some song metadata to reproduce the original staff: the key of D minor, common time, and the tempo.

If LilyPond is installed on your system (and added to your system path variable on Windows systems), tab should call it successfully. Windows users are recommended to just add LilyPond’s bin directory to the system path. This will take care of LilyPond as well as its bundled Python and MIDI support. As an example for Windows users, if the LilyPond executable is at C:/Program Files (x86)/LilyPond/usr/bin/lilypond.exe, then add C:/Program Files (x86)/LilyPond/usr/bin to the system path.

Minimal R code example


p("r a, c f d a f", "4 8*6", "x 5 5 4 4 3 4") %>% track %>% score %>%
  tab("phrase.pdf", key = "dm", time = "4/4", tempo = "4 = 120")
#> #### Engraving score to phrase.pdf ####
#> GNU LilyPond 2.18.2
#> Processing `./'
#> Parsing...
#> Interpreting music...
#> Preprocessing graphical objects...
#> Interpreting music...
#> MIDI output to `./phrase.mid'...
#> Finding the ideal number of pages...
#> Fitting music on 1 page...
#> Drawing systems...
#> Layout output to `./'...
#> Converting to `./phrase.pdf'...
#> Success: compilation successfully completed

The pdf output looks like this:

Music syntax

As an aside, if you are working with the music class, you can enter notes, note info, and optionally string numbers if applicable, all in a single string. This is not only potentially much more efficient for data entry, but can also be easier to follow because it binds these otherwise separate arguments by timestep. See the vignettes and help documentation relating to music objects for more details on working with these objects.

The phrase above can be constructed using the single-string input syntax that is used for music objects. phrase understands this syntax and interprets the notes argument as music syntax if the info argument is not provided (info = NULL). The phrase above could have been created as follows, with or without the optional explicit string numbering.

p("r4 a,8 c f d a f")
#> <Musical phrase>
#> r4 <a,>8 <c>8 <f>8 <d>8 <a>8 <f>8
p("r4;5 a,8 c f;4 d a;3 f;4")
#> <Musical phrase>
#> r4 <a,\5>8 <c\5>8 <f\4>8 <d\4>8 <a\3>8 <f\4>8

Notice how each timestep is complete within the single character string inputs above. Also, durations and string numbers can repeat implicitly until and explicit change occurs. String numbers are ignored when they carry over rests. This is often a more convenient way to construct phrases. If you already have a music object, it can be passed directly to phrase.

References and resources

There are several vignette tutorials and examples at the tabr website.


R for music data extraction and analysis

See the R-Music organization on GitHub for more R packages related to music data extraction and analysis.
The R-Music blog provides package introductions and examples.

Other packages

Please note that the tabr project is released with a Contributor Code of Conduct. By contributing to this project, you agree to abide by its terms.