I Made a Songbook

(September 16, 2021)

A bit over a year ago I started exploring the world of Polish traditional music. I might write a post later talking more about my journey with that, but for today I just want to talk about a project related to this that I created last weekend:

Quick word of warning: it's 100% in Polish, so you probably won't get much use out of it if you're not a Polish speaker. Even if you are, you probably still won't get much use out of it if you're not interested in traditional music.

In this post I'll go over three things: the what, the why, and the how of

What is

Right now the website is just a simple listing of a few songs from Polish villages, mostly the types that would be sung at a wedding, or otherwise related to the concept of love. I got most of the lyrics at a week-long workshop I went to a year ago.

Most of the lyrics also have short sheet music notating the main vocal melody. For the most part, these are transcribed by ear by me, hopefully there aren't any inaccuracies. That said, the sheet music is only provided for reference, and honestly should not be used to learn the songs. Classical notation is an imperfect tool for this purpose, as in the real world the melodies often vary from performer to performer and freedoms can be taken with both rhythm and pitches. The best way to learn is to listen to performances (if possible, live performances; and in those cases, bonus points if it's in an environment where you can join the singing, not just listen to it like at a concert, further bonus points if you're dancing while doing it).

Where I could find them, recordings from YouTube or Bandcamp are linked.

Each song is downloadable as an individual PDF for convenient offline storage, or for printing individual songs for distribution to a group learning them.

On the main page, there's also a PDF that's a songbook containing all of the songs. This is, in my opinion, the main "product" on the website. All the song pages on the website are nice if you need to quickly look something up, but if you're going to be needing the songbook at a party, it's probably best to download the whole thing and use that (it looks good on large screen ereaders, and has a clickable index). Very printable, too!

Why did I build this?

Primarily just for myself. In the recent months I'd been going to some parties where this sort of traditional music would be played, but when trying to Google some of the lyrics I would hear people singing, I wasn't able to find anything. Additionally, the lyrics I did have from the workshop I mentioned before were stored in my phone's camera's folder as photos I took of somebody else's phone screen showing a photo from a Facebook post of a laptop screen with a Word document open. Seriously. They weren't easy to find and definitely weren't searchable. So if I couldn't rely on lyrics websites that already exist, I decided I need to create something of my own. And the nice thing is, my website can be as clean as I want it to be, rather than a bloated mess of newsletter popups, cookie preferences, and flashing ads.

As mentioned above, the sheet music on the website is not really provided for anyone to use to learn the melodies. Instead, since currently I myself am the target audience of this website, the sheet music is there to remind me the melodies if I ever forget them (which I sometimes do). If anyone else finds them useful, great. Again, I do recommend learning by ear instead.

For now the website is just a small index of a few songs I know. If I have the time and motivation (or funding/volunteers), I would love to expand it to a much wider and more general archive of this sort of music.

The songbook will probably receive a field test in the coming days, as the next edition of the workshop I went to last year is coming up, and we might end up using as the "official" songbook.

How is implemented technically?

Just like this website, is a static site. I adapted the Ruby script that generates this website to build the songbook website, which is simpler in some ways, and more complex in others. Instead of a list of blog articles written in (potentially templated) HTML, the sonbgook website has, for each song, up to three files:

  1. song.txt: a plain text file with the lyrics
  2. a(n optional) Lilypond source file notating the melody. Lilypond is a music notation language with a compiler that beautifully engraves it as sheet music to various formats.
  3. song.yaml: a metadata file that contains information like the song's title or links to recordings. In the future these might also contain important tags like the genre of music, region from which the song originates, etc.

The Lilypond files are compiled into SVG images that are then displayed on individual songs' pages, PDFs, as well as the main songbook PDF. The PDFs themselves are compiled from LaTeX templates.

Future additions to the website will probably include a search feature, tags, and, if enough songs are added, multiple songbooks that represent curated collections, rather than just the one that lists all the songs on the website.

If you have any questions or comments about this post or site in general, feel free to email me.