Over the past year, this blog has featured discussions and interviews with representatives of several notation software producers. I had breakfast with MakeMusic’s Gear Fisher, Fred Flowerday and Mark Adler and spoke at length with Steinberg’s Daniel Spreadbury. We’ve had several discussions with Avid representatives, including software engineer Michael Ost; marketing manager Andrew Wild about Avid Everywhere; and recently with product staff Sam Butler and Joe Pearson about Sibelius Cloud Publishing.
In that spirit I invited MuseScore‘s co-founder and CEO Thomas Bonte for an interview to coincide with today’s release of MuseScore 2.0, a version five years in the making. I first met Thomas and his co-founder and CTO Nicolas Froment in 2011, when they visited New York for a Music Hack Day event. Their globe-trotting and development hasn’t stopped in the four years since then, and so I am grateful that Thomas was very generous with his time, answering these interview questions during a very busy period for MuseScore.
Read on to learn more about Thomas, the history of MuseScore, what’s new in MuseScore 2.0, and what to expect for the future.
Q: How did you first become involved with MuseScore?
MuseScore started as a hobby software project by German software developer Werner Schweer in 2002. He wrote it for himself to notate his piano compositions. I stumbled upon MuseScore in 2004, as I was looking for an open source WYSIWYG editor to transcribe sheet music. My requirements were rather modest, as I just wanted to transcribe lead sheets. It was promising, but needed quite a bit more work, so I kept on using Lilypond until 2007, when I e-mailed Werner to request if he could implement a way to enter chord names. Half a year later, I had my near-perfect solution. I left Lilypond behind and never looked back.
Q: Where do you live and work?
I live and work in Ghent, Belgium. It’s situated right in between Brussels and Bruges, and one of Europe’s finest discoveries! I do travel a lot, however, so I can work anywhere where there’s an internet connection.
Q: What are your responsibilities for MuseScore?
I started as a normal user, but as I found the MuseScore project lacking online presence, I took it as a challenge to develop the musescore.org web site and grow the MuseScore user and contributor community. In particular, I focused on putting the infrastructure in place to facilitate the documentation and localization efforts. Today, my daily activities are developing the MuseScore web properties, traveling around the world making contacts and evangelizing about MuseScore, leading all non-development projects relating to MuseScore, and more.
Q: Do you work on other products or projects besides MuseScore?
No, I’ve worked exclusively on MuseScore since 2008.
Q: What is your background? What did you do before working on MuseScore?
I have an bachelor’s degree in engineering from Ghent University. Halfway through working on my master’s degree, I decided to follow my entrepreneurial instinct and start a business. I ended up co-founding a printing software company, developing RIP (raster image processing) and color management software. Three years later, I left that business to pursue my music interests.
Q: Tell us about some of the most interesting things you did before working on MuseScore.
On February 26 in 2005 I attended the FOSDEM conference in Brussels. That day literally changed the course of my professional life. The conference started with the two inspirational keynote speakers: Jimmy Wales, who spoke about the young Wikipedia project and its mission to collect the sum of all human knowledge; and Richard Stallman who talked about free software and user freedom in general. Essentially, though, they both talked about the same thing: a global movement based on sharing knowledge, and how that could make a dramatic impact on society and business.
I vividly remember thinking how I could apply what I just learned to the world of sheet music. As an amateur piano player, I was always in need of sheet music in order to learn to play a song. It was through this need that I felt the catalog of available sheet music on the market was rather limited. And if it was available, it came at a very high price, since you were often forced to buy a whole book. So during the keynote presentations, the Wikifonia idea came to me: a wiki site to collaboratively transcribe lead sheets of all songs ever recorded. All I would need was a site, software to create sheet music available to add and a way to render the sheet music in the browser.
On the question how I wanted to build the site, I received an answer on the same day while attending the very first Drupal developer meeting. Drupal is an open source content management system which you can use to create community based websites. It showed great potential, so I decided to use Drupal to build the Wikifonia site. Besides being software, Drupal is also a community. Through Drupal, I learned many things about open source development and growing a developer community.
To solve the second issue, a tool to create sheet music, I had various attempts with some friends to create a browser-based solution, first as a Java applet, followed by an attempt with Flash. This was obviously years before the HTML5 standard. Unfortunately none of the attempts were satisfactory. So I changed strategy and revisited MuseScore. It had evolved, but in order to succeed, it had to rival with the market leaders Sibelius and Finale. So I realized my journey had just begun.
Q: What is your music background? When did your interest in music begin?
My parents had a piano at home and, as the eldest, I was predestined to play that piano. I started to go to music school at the age of 8, learned to read notes and enjoyed the typical classical music training. I was not really talented, though, and on top of that I had a hard time reading notes because of my dyslexia. But my parents and teacher motivated me to push through.
Soon I started to get interested in playing the pop songs I heard on the radio. As I couldn’t play by ear, I walked into the sheet music shop across the music school, looking for my favorite songs. Unfortunately I couldn’t find most of the titles I was looking for, and if I did find one, it was bundled in a whole book. So with the brain of an 11-year-old, I made a simple economical decision and bought the biggest book in the store, containing the top 100 songs of the 1980s.
Proud of the very first purchase I ever made myself, I immediately sat at the piano. First I learned it was nearly impossible to keep the book open without aids such as clothespins. The next discovery was even more sobering, since the songs were not arranged in the way I liked it. I never played a single song from that book!
Many years later, I understood I had purchased a piano-vocal-guitar book, while I was actually looking for a piano arrangement. It was an extremely disappointing experience and I didn’t understand why this industry sold me a badly designed product which didn’t fit my needs. It was the start of a journey in finding ways to make sheet music more available and easier to learn.
Q: When did your interest in computers and computer programming begin?
I was rather late with computers; I got my first computer at the age of 16. It had an Intel 486 processor on board, and all I needed it for at the start was to play games. My first programming experience was simply typing over BASIC scripts from print magazines and modifying them. I was in particular intrigued by fractals, plotting various versions with the Mandelbrot set and simple Lissajous curves. I created my first web site the year I entered university and got introduced to the internet. It was simply a spreadsheet which listed the sheet music I owned, exported as HTML. I added a simple message to it: “let’s swap”.
There was this very particular thing with sheet music: I never knew in advance whether the piece would work for me. Making an upfront investment, only to find out the arrangement was to hard to play or simply not the way I liked it, was always a painful experience — especially as a student with a limited budget. So enlarging my personal collection by swapping what I already had was a very cost-effective solution. While swapping with people from around the globe, I learned that I wasn’t the only one having difficulties find the right piece of sheet music.
The spreadsheet site started to attract quite some visitors, and I further developed it so people could sign up and enter information on their own sheet music collection, allowing them to swap it as well. It turned into my first community site and it steadily grew over the years. At the same time, I started to work on Wikifonia and later MuseScore, anticipating that while I was solving my own needs, I could do it at the same time for all the other struggling music learners out there.
Q: What do you like to do in your free time?
These days I reserve most of my free time for family and sports. My piano keyboard is currently gathering too much dust while my computer keyboard is getting all the love, but I know one day I’ll get back to it. I also like photography, which I mostly do while traveling.