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Including Scheme in LilyPond

The first thing to understand is how - on a very basic level - Scheme code can be used in LilyPond documents. So this is what we will first investigate.

Note: With LilyPond 2.19.22 some substantial simplifications have been introduced in how Scheme can be integrated in LilyPond code. In case of doubt this book will strongly prefer the new syntax and exclusively explain this.

Switching Between LilyPond and Scheme

In order to insert code in a different language the parser must discern between the two layers, which it does through the # sign that marks the transition from LilyPond to Scheme. Concretely, whenever the parser encounters this marker it will interpret the immediately following code as a Scheme expression.

So to insert any Scheme expression into a LilyPond document you have to prepend it with #. The best way to understand this is to see it in action. More or less any LilyPond user will already have assigned a Scheme value to an override:

  \once \override DynamicText.extra-offset = #'(2 . 1)

The # tells LilyPond's parser to parse one complete Scheme expression, which happens to be the pair '(2 . 1) (a later chapter will go into more details about Scheme's data types.)


LilyPond very much “thinks” like Scheme, and all input will internally be converted to Scheme. Therefore some data types can be entered literally, without explicitly switching to Scheme, and the following number assignments are equivalent:

  \once \override Stem.length = #7.5
  \once \override Stem.length = 7.5

This feels very natural, but it can cause some confusion once one starts thinking about it. The point is that it is actually the LilyPond parser that performs this transparent conversion.

The same is true for strings (TODO: should it be explained what a ”string” is?) that can additionally be written with or without double quotes (NOTE: LilyPond/Scheme strings have to use double quotes, as single quotes have a completely different meaning). Again, the following assignments are equivalent:

\header {
  title = #"MyPiece"
  title = "MyPiece"
  title = MyPiece

The first one is the “regular” Scheme syntax: switching to Scheme mode, then writing a proper string with quotes. The other ones are simplifications made possible through LilyPond's parser. But in all three cases the variable title now refers to the string MyPiece. Note: the third version is only possible with single words. Something like "My Piece" must be enclosed in the quotes.

There are a few other data types where this is possible, but we will discuss them at a later point. For now you should only keep in mind that you have to use # to switch to Scheme syntax - but not always.

Displaying Scheme Values

Sometimes it is necessary, and for learning it is often enlightening, to print some Scheme values to the console. To start with, there are two ways to do so, using Scheme's display procedure or LilyPond's ly:message family of functions:

myVariable = "This is a variable"

#(display myVariable)
#(ly:message myVariable)

There are some notable differences between the commands:

  • display can show any value while ly:message only processes strings (but this can be circumvented using the format procedure)
  • display will not produce a newline, so that should always be done manually (through #(newline))
  • ly:message will print immediately while display only acts after parsing has been finished.

We will regularly use these methods for demonstrating parts of our code in the subsequent chapters.

LilyPond and Scheme variables

Another thing to note is that LilyPond variables are interchangeable with Scheme variables in LilyPond input files. Variables can be defined using either syntax:

% define a variable using LilyPond syntax
bpmA = 60

% define a variable using Scheme syntax
#(define bpmB 72)

We have two variables, bpmA and bpmB, one of which has been entered as a LilyPond variable, the other as a Scheme variable (as an exercise you can think about this expression in the light of what you learnt in the previous chapter). But internally they are now the same kind of variable and can be accessed in the same way:

  % assign a tempo using a literal value
  \tempo 8 = 54

  % assign tempos using the variables with LilyPond syntax
  \tempo 8 = \bpmA

  \tempo 8 = \bpmB

However, as they are stored as Scheme variables internally we can also refer to them using the Scheme syntax (i.e. switching to Scheme with # but not enclosing them in parens, as these variables are constants or self-evaluating expressions):

   % assign tempos by referencing variables using Scheme
  \tempo 8 = #bpmA

  \tempo 8 = #bpmB

Each of these ways to access the variables will work interchangeably, and it depends on the context which one should be used. This flexibility may seem confusing but it helps if you strictly remember that all values and variables are maintained as Scheme structures internally and that setting and accessing them can always be done through Scheme or LilyPond syntax.


Last update: November 3, 2022