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The Need for a New Music Interchange Format

Common Western music notation is a symbolic method of representing music for performers and listeners. Besides its use in publishing sheet music, musical scores and parts, it has been encoded in different computer formats for over 30 years. The book Beyond MIDI describes over 20 of these published musical codes. There are also many more unpublished, proprietary codes. Given the high costs of traditional music publication, many companies have seen that Internet distribution has the potential to increase both the size and profitability of the sheet music market.

To date, the Internet sheet music market has been hobbled by its reliance on a proliferation of proprietary binary formats. The most common format, Portable Document Format (PDF) , contains no musical semantics and can only be viewed on screen or printed on paper. Companies like Sunhawk, MusicNotes, Sibelius, and Noteheads all have different proprietary music formats for their sheet music players. If you buy sheet music from them or their partners today, you can play it, view it, or print it only with that single proprietary player. This provides little value-added to consumers when compared to printed music on paper. We believe this has fragmented the online sheet music market and contributed significantly to its disappointing sales through 2001.

Electronic musical instruments such as synthesizers faced a similar problem in the 1980s, when there was no way to get musical instruments from different vendors to work or play together. The invention of the Musical Instrument Digital Interface (MIDI) format [MIDI 1996]solved this problem, and led to the rapid growth of the electronic musical instrument market. The introduction of General MIDI led to even further levels of compatibility, interchange, and growth in the instrument market.

Today, MIDI remains the only symbolic music interchange format in wide use today. But MIDI, designed to solve problems in music performance, cannot represent much of what is found in sheet music. MP3 and other audio formats represent music recordings, not music notation. Except for very simple music, computers cannot automatically derive accurate music notation from a music recording, despite decades of research.

Music interchange formats have been developed in the past, but none besides MIDI has been successful. Notation Interchange File Format (NIFF) is based on the binary Resource Interchange File Format (RIFF) format. It has been used to interchange music between scanning and notation applications. NIFF contains more notation data than MIDI, but its highly graphical representation is inferior to MIDI for performance and analysis applications. Its adoption outside of scanning software has been very limited. Standard Music Description Language (SMDL), based on Standard Generalized Markup Language (SGML), was an attempt to create a general-purpose, formal specification for music, and was designed without the guidance of implementation experience. The result was a complex, difficult-to-understand specification that, to our knowledge, has not been implemented in any commercial product.


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