Mark Gotham

Scores of scores: open access and new possibilities in the digital era

9:00, 13th June 2017

The times, they certainly are a’changin’. Change in the classical music world might seem unrelentingly negative, with ever more cuts to provision and access, and an ever more problematic perception of musical literacy (see Guardian, Letters, 5 April). However, also blowing in the wind are some exciting online initiatives that could help to counter those trends by making it easier for anyone to access scores, and to engage with their content on an appropriate level.

Ten years ago, there were few notable online initiatives in sheet music and those there were faced major difficulties. For instance, the online score-library IMSLP started in 2006 and was brought down again soon afterwards by a legal challenge. Since that early setback, it has stayed online and can now boast a collection of more than 100,000 works, making it much larger than most public – or even specialist – music libraries. The scale of this increased access to sheet music arguably puts it on a level of historical significance comparable only to the development of written notation and of mechanical printing.

‘Openness’ is key to both the success and significance of such ventures. Content is often ‘crowd-sourced’ through user contribution: a division of labour that makes huge tasks manageable, and keeps the repository closely based on those users’ interests. In turn, that content is offered freely to all. While many sites rely on a premium (paid) version and / or advertisement to survive, most of the success stories offer at least a free version.

However, despite IMSLP’s impressive scale, there is nothing so radically new about scanned scores. Viewing an image on a screen is not so different from looking at the printed page; it is when those scores become computer-readable that exciting new possibilities emerge.












Enter OpenScore. The good people at MuseScore, not content with having provided the world with the most-used open-source software for music notation, have now embarked on coordinating the creation of an open, online repository of reliably-encoded scores in an editable and transferable format.

What does this add to IMSLP? First, MuseScore can play the music back to you from the score, while highlighting where you are. You may have that function already with commercial software, but only for your own scores, and only with synthesised sounds. Now, integrating a game-changing feature called ‘Match’, MuseScore is able to coordinate with any corresponding audio or video, from YouTube for instance.

Second, you might want to adapt the score, perhaps to produce your own edition, arrangement, or teaching resource. This has previously involved tedious photocopying, typesetting from scratch, or trawling the internet for something reliable. OpenScore will alleviate this preparatory grunt work and give greater flexibility, enabling teachers and musicians to focus on the creative side.
In turn, what we need next is a repository for sharing those teaching resources. This might well feature in the context of the institutional responses to the musical literacy problem which are now being mobilised by organisations like the Society for Music Analysis. Watch this space.

Finally, OpenScore will greatly serve music information retrieval: a branch of musicology that seeks to develop a better understanding of how music works through computer-aided analysis. Reliable, machine-readable scores will provide the data needed to make progress with big questions like what really constitutes a style, common practice, or historical trend.

One day, these scores might also enable wider participation in the emerging practice of ‘digital edition’: another great venture for enhancing the functionality and interactive usability of scores.

The Music Encoding Initiative (MEI) is providing excellent leadership in this area. Projects have focused so far on bringing together editorial sources for direct comparison, making engagement with editorial matters easier to undertake as part of preparing an interpretation. Apart from simply showing score variants side-by-side, MEI brings a range of additional functions, including integrated reference to facsimile source images and details of scribal interventions.

Significantly, it is also another promising area for teaching and learning; MEI supports the analytical mark-up of scores, bringing them alive with all kinds of instructive annotations, colourful visualisations, and interactive content. Brilliant MEI-based initiatives like Verovio are improving the technical infrastructure for this and reducing the barrier to entry.

There are, of course, substantial challenges in all of this, not least because there are relatively few people active in these areas, and with limited resources. But these people are resourceful in finding ways to progress, and their number is growing.

Perhaps most encouraging is the evidence of greater collaboration. Crowd-sourcing is not just about the scale of content, but also about connecting people. There are also some signs of improved connection between teachers, learners, scholars and musicians – interest groups that really ought to be in constant dialogue. So I remain optimistic.

Whatever the future holds, do check out the resources on offer (and contribute if you can). Most of all, enjoy any system (digital or otherwise) that gets you inside musical scores – they are treasure troves of beauty and brilliance that will repay your effort.


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