Notation Standards Take One Giant Step

Today marks the official birth of the W3C Music Notation Community Group with MakeMusic, Steinberg and Hal Leonard/Noteflight as founding members, to be joined by many others shortly. One never knows what a moment means when it occurs, but this could be a significant point in the history of music representation. In the hope that this moment can be just such a point, I’ve been working towards it for some time.

A decade ago, the Web was just coming into its own as a rich medium for building applications with heavy client-side interaction such as word processors, spreadsheets (and, of course notation editors). People did not yet speak of “the cloud”. Mobile devices were clunky and had only evolved a little from their flip-phone ancestors.

Noteflight was born at the time of that transition, and as it was a web-based notation editor we had to solve the problem of synthesizing live audio in a web browser. A solution (other than Flash) didn’t exist yet, and other people were looking for an answer too. So I got involved in a web standards effort to define this essential new capability, the Web Audio Working Group. That eventually delivered the Web Audio API, an amazing standard in its own right which is now built into every major browser, and I became a co-chair of the working group that defined it.

Once I was in the Web Audio Working Group, I started to meet people through the W3C who were generally interested in music, and wanted a music notation standard for the Web. In particular, Doug Schepers of the W3C brought this up a lot; I also talked to Ivan Herman, a key W3C person in the digital publishing area. Bringing music notation to the W3C seemed like a good idea to me, because a lot of music technology was still geared to the preceding revolution of personal computing, not the coming revolution on the Web and on mobile.

MusicXML fell into this category. It was great technology, but it showed its roots. Document formats of this period were designed for file interchange and archiving, not for, say, transferring digital music to a tablet that someone might suddenly turn 90 degrees and expect to reformat on the fly. Certainly not for writing music on that same tablet. I began to think about how we could enable a new round of creative thinking and evolution in notation standards, while being mindful of all the effort that so many developers had invested in supporting MusicXML. I saw that the people I was meeting in these web standards circles would have a lot of great ideas and could help solve a lot of the problems that were coming up.

Hal Leonard acquired Noteflight around this time as well, which changed the picture again. Hal Leonard joined the W3C at my suggestion, and I began to represent a music publisher’s views in my standards work, not just a software developer’s. I saw first-hand a lot of the problems that remained to be solved if musical documents were to be commercially useful and viable at publishing scale.

I talked to Michael Good about moving MusicXML to W3C for quite a long time. Michael now worked for MakeMusic, which had bought his company Recordare and, with it, the rights to MusicXML. So any transfer of the governance of MusicXML to a standards group was a delicate matter. At the same time, owning an industry standard is never an easy position for a vendor that competes in that industry: it dampens other vendors’ appetite to contribute effort. Whatever the size of music notation’s niche in the world, it’s a really complicated beast and the level of effort required to address is a large burden for any one company to bear: witness the fact that MusicXML still lacks a written specification.

Michael was supportive of the idea (in fact, he had originally introduced me to the Web Audio group long ago), but understandably he did not want MakeMusic to go it alone: he wanted Steinberg’s emerging music font standard SMuFL to join the open-standards party. SMuFL is of course the brainchild of Daniel Spreadbury of Steinberg, and so another round of conversation ensued to make the case to Steinberg that this would be a good move for them. All things converged at Musik Messe 2015, which was really the moment when the three of us came together and I sensed a collective will to make this happen. Michael invited me to address the MusicXML community meeting at Messe, and I thought I made a pretty good case for taking MusicXML to a more open and modern place. I threw in some examples of sensible things a “MusicXML of the future” might do, like support for stylesheets, or the ability to be changed on the fly with JavaScript.

This takes us up almost to today. Between Messe and now, there was some bureaucracy and legal setup, but we’re about to start the really interesting part of the story, with both MusicXML and SMuFL under the governance of the new Community Group. There is a longish and not completely certain road ahead before these become full-blown open standards, but this is the start of that road. Browsers may or may not ever support these standards natively (like they support HTML or CSS), but having a solid specification for notation that cleanly interoperates with other modern standards will change the possibilities of notation on the Web, as well as the economy of notation.

I believe in the Web not just as a technology but as an idea, a goal of information flowing freely and effortlessly throughout our culture. Musical forms and representations have a role to play in this revolution, and this change will accelerate it. We will have the challenges of recognizing and addressing new use cases, and considering audiences that were not previously accounted for. I’ll be very excited to see what comes next. As the folk adage has it, “It takes a village to raise a standard.”

Cool times.