MusicXML’s Approach to Music Interchange

MusicXML attempts to do for online sheet music and music software what MIDI did for electronic musical instruments. MusicXML represents common Western music notation from the 17th century onwards. By using XML, it is more Internet-friendly that proprietary binary formats. MusicXML serves as an interchange format for applications in music notation, music analysis, music information retrieval, and musical performance. Therefore it augments, but does not replace, existing specialized formats for individual applications. It is designed to be adequate, not optimal, for these diverse applications.

XML has obvious appeal as a technology to help solve the music interchange problem. It is designed to represent complex, structured data in a standardized way. The same things that make XML appeal in other application areas – including straightforward usability over the Internet, ease of creating documents, and human readability – apply to musical scores as well. Castan et al. [Castan 2001] discuss several approaches to using XML to represent music, and many more have been introduced on the Web. These alternative XML formats tend to be much simpler than MusicXML, do not represent as many aspects of music notation, and lack software that works with commercial music applications.

To circumvent the problems of past interchange formats, the design of MusicXML followed two main strategies:

  1. The design of MusicXML was based on two of the most powerful academic music formats for music notation: MuseData and Humdrum. Both formats have large music repertoires available, and have been used for diverse music applications. A format that learns from these successes would have a solid technical grounding.
  2. The MusicXML definition was developed iteratively with MusicXML software. The initial prototype software did two-way conversions to MuseData, read from NIFF files, and wrote to Standard MIDI Files (Format 1). Handling these three very different formats demonstrated that MusicXML’s basic interchange capabilities were solid. We then moved on to support interchange with Finale from Coda Music Technology, the market leader in music notation software.

Iterative design and evolutionary delivery techniques have been used since the 1980s to produce more usable and useful computer systems [Gilb 1988] [Good 1988] [Gould 1985]. With MusicXML, we have found that these techniques can also be successful in XML language design.

As of October 2001, MusicXML has just begun its public beta test. Recordare provides a MusicXML Finale converter to convert between Finale, MusicXML, and MuseData. The converter runs on Windows with Finale 2000, 2001, and 2002. Visiv has added MusicXML support to their SharpEye Music Reader product, one of the leading music scanner software packages on Windows. SharpEye saves MusicXML files starting with version 2.15. Xemus Software and Middle C Software have announced their plans for MusicXML support in upcoming products. MusicXML is available under a royalty-free license (/for-developers/public-license-3-0/). The complete MusicXML DTD is available at /for-developers/musicxml-dtd/.

With this solid level of acceptance as a result of the MusicXML alpha test, we will be reaching out to more music software developers during the beta test to increase the level of MusicXML usage in the industry. Only after we have greater implementation experience, especially with popular music, do we plan to standardize MusicXML, most likely through Organization for the Advancement of Structured Information Standards (OASIS).


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