Comment: Robert Douglass on the global potential for sharing notation on the Internet
16th Apr 2012
Musical notation is a social medium. It exists to convey musical concepts from person to person so that music can be enjoyed by all.
I would love to see an online forum where working musicians can easily spell out riffs and chords, or a chat facility where lovers can spontaneously compose sweet melodies for each other in real time.
Words and images are easy to share via the Internet and social media, much to the chagrin of media companies and publishers who once solely made money selling their unique content. In contrast readers of music are left out in the cold when it comes to sharing notation.
There is no group-editable library of public domain music akin to Wikipedia and one cannot easily copy and paste notes or measures from a single web page to another. A search engine for music notation has yet to make written music transparent and navigable.
Texts and images are shared so effectively because they have open standards and technical agreements that are adhered to by everybody who writes compatible software. Conversely, music notation (itself an open format) does not have a widely adapted technical standard that works in the same way.
One can barely use a search facility to discover a decent score of Beethoven’s fifth piano sonata, or to find out how long the second movement is – and even when a score is discovered; it is tricky to share a few bars on a social media site such as Facebook. Nor can one personalise scores to suit individual taste by fixing wrong notes, removing an editor’s fingerings, or transposing a piece to the key of your choice on the usual computer keypad.
This dearth of activity is to the detriment of musicians because nowhere will you find the kind of rich, fluid, social music writing and sharing experience that we know and enjoy when dealing with text and images – imagine a community of blogs managed by composers, where their latest sketches are entered as freely into the browser as a tweet or a lolcat.
Some companies are working to change this: I recently had the opportunity to work with MuseScore.com as a partner in the Open Goldberg Variations Project. Together we’re producing a new recording, played by Kimiko Ishizaka, to be released to the public along with an iPad app, that will enable the audience to simultaneously listen to and follow the score to Bach’s masterpiece. It will be available as a free download in May.
MuseScore supports an open standard source called MusicXML, and its vision is to make scores and notation social. In order to produce the Goldberg Variations, MuseScore began by facilitating a peer review process of the variations where reviewers could see, play, and annotate the score, all within the browser.
The finished score can be embedded onto websites in the same way as one might post a YouTube video. I posted the Goldberg Variations recording to my Facebook page, where my friends could listen to it while watching the notes as they were played.
A new raft of internet start-up companies which understand this potential are poised to disrupt the music publishing industry . This will happen through a range of open standards such as MusicXML and Mozilla’s upcoming Audio Data API.
It seems that until now, established music publishers have determinedly safeguarded their sheet music collections as a precious asset and kept the pay-per-copy model in situ, despite its obvious conflict with a social-sharing model that is driven by consumer expectations.
Publishers risk irrelevancy if they fail to make scores social and they’ll miss the opportunity to reach out to young composers – who will bypass publishers altogether, instead opting for instant global reach and social interaction with their audience, provided by the internet.
If technology catches up, and puts notation on the same online footing as text, musicians and consumers benefit – the breakthrough will allow us to take command of our public domain music, as well as make score sharing social.
Robert Douglass is director of the Open Goldberg Variations Project, and a solutions engineer for Acquia, Inc.
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