Note: All this week, we’ll be publishing short posts from the 2017 NAMM Show in Anaheim, California. It’s a huge exhibition, so we’ll focus on what we try to do best: cover the field of music notation software and related technology.
In this post, I talk with Michael Good, vice president of MusicXML technologies at MakeMusic, about recent developments in MusicXML and plans for the future.
When music notation software was first developed, each platform had its own proprietary file format. That’s still largely the case, of course, but there was a time when it was impossible to switch to another product if you wanted your files to make the journey with you. This didn’t prevent users from switching if they were so inclined, but it did make the decision more difficult as one amassed a library of more and more files.
About the only way you could transfer even a fraction of the data contained in a music notation file was to export it to a MIDI file, which lost practically everything but the notes, rhythms, meter and tempo changes. So in the early 2000s, when Michael Good and his company at the time, Recordare LLC, created a product called Dolet to convert Finale files to Sibelius files and vice versa, it was revolutionary. Dolet could interpret the essential elements of music notation in one program, like articulations, dynamics, text, and formatting, and save them in a format that could be interpreted in another.
Dolet was based on MusicXML, an XML-based file format, and the rest is history. Since version 1.0 of MusicXML was released in 2004, MusicXML has become so successful as a music notation interchange format that more than 200 applications support it across many devices, and some applications, like the sheet music reader Newzik, don’t even use a file format of their own at all, instead relying entirely upon MusicXML to render notation. Support is expanding all time, as evidenced by Apple’s inclusion of MusicXML importing in the latest Logic Pro X 10.3 update just this past week (exporting MusicXML was introduced earlier).
In that time, Recordare’s assets were acquired by MakeMusic, and Michael Good joined the company in 2011 as director of digital sheet music (he’s now vice president of MusicXML technologies). Dolet became free for both Finale and Sibelius, and MusicXML is now at version 3.0, with 3.1 on the way. The MusicXML file format was transferred to the Music Notation Community Group at the World Wide Web Consortium (W3C) in 2015.
Michael reflected on that change in a recent blog post celebrating the start of his sixth year at MakeMusic. “The acquisition changed important dynamics within the MusicXML community. Many companies that had collaborated with Recordare became hesitant to collaborate with MakeMusic. Recordare was not a competitor, but MakeMusic was,” Michael said.
“Joe Berkovitz from Noteflight recommended for many years that MusicXML move to a community group in the World Wide Web Consortium. MakeMusic management saw the advantages of this move, and Steinberg agreed to simultaneously transfer their Standard Music Font Layout (SMuFL).”
Of course, MakeMusic saw advantages in being able to capitalize on Michael’s talents to improve its own core products. “The initial project that started the Recordare acquisition discussions was modernizing Finale’s file format to be forward and backward compatible,” Michael said. “Five years ago, a file created in a later version of Finale could not be opened by an older version of Finale. This also meant that SmartMusic accompaniment files created in a newer version of Finale could not be used in older versions of SmartMusic. This led to long periods where our customers could not use the latest version of Finale to create SmartMusic SMP files for the latest version of SmartMusic.”
“After two years of work,” Michael continued, “we delivered the new Finale .musx file format in November 2013 with Finale 2014. In July 2014, we updated our SmartMusic desktop and iOS applications to accept the new .smpx file format for SmartMusic accompaniments. The true test of the file format came this past August when we released a new Finale v25 update. People were able to open files created in Finale v25 in Finale 2014. There was no interruption in being able to create SmartMusic accompaniments for the existing SmartMusic desktop and iOS applications from Finale v25 – things just worked.”
MakeMusic had a longer strategic goal in mind, as well — to modernize the SmartMusic application to make better use of new web and mobile technologies, including a new music file format.
To make that work, Michael said, they need to be able to convert existing SmartMusic subscription repertoire from “the current Finale-based file format to whatever the new file format might be. MusicXML would be the way to do that. The Recordare asset acquisition would give MakeMusic full control over the MusicXML export from Finale as well as the MusicXML import into a new SmartMusic format, and that’s exactly what happened with the launch of the new web-based SmartMusic earlier this year.”
Indeed, in July 2015, MakeMusic acquired Weezic, establishing MakeMusic SAS in Paris, and together launched the new SmartMusic, running on Chromebooks and other web-based platforms. “For most of the past year,” Michael said, “I have worked on improving the MusicXML export out of Finale to get the best possible repertoire conversion from desktop SmartMusic to the web-based SmartMusic. We also added one-step export of MusicXML files from all linked parts in a Finale file to ease the import of Finale-created MusicXML files into the new SmartMusic.”
MakeMusic has continued to undergo organizational changes of its own, going private in 2013 and a year later joining Peaksware, taking the company from its Minnesota home to Boulder, Colorado in the process. “Throughout these moves,” Michael said, “I remained here in Silicon Valley with periodic trips to MakeMusic headquarters. My role within MakeMusic evolved throughout these organizational changes.”
In April 2016 the educational music publisher Alfred Music became a part of Peaksware. Although MakeMusic and Alfred operate independently, Michael said that “having MakeMusic and Alfred under one corporate umbrella offers tremendous possibilities for the digital sheet music future. It brings Peaksware ever closer to the vision that I had for Recordare when I started the company nearly 17 years ago.”
The joint Alfred/MakeMusic booth (4618) at this year’s NAMM show was evidence of that evolving vision, and it’s where I caught up with Michael to reflect and discuss what’s on the horizon for MusicXML as it enters its teenage years.
I was curious how Michael came up with the idea of MusicXML in the first place. “In 1999 I read about Sunhawk, one of the pioneering digital sheet music applications,” he told me. “You could see its potential, but the lack of a standard music notation format seemed crippling. There would have been no web without HTML; no booming electronic keyboard business without MIDI; no digital audio business without MP3. What digital sheet music could we ever have without a standard format?”
Michael knew that at SAP they were using XML technology to help different computer applications exchange data. “Why not use XML as a basis for a new standard music notation format? My background as a professional software engineer and serious amateur performing musician seemed well suited to making that a reality. So I left SAP in January 2000 to start Recordare and build what turned into the MusicXML format and Dolet plug-ins,” he said.
The “goal from the start” was for MusicXML to become the worldwide standard as a music notation software interchange format, Michael explained. “I knew it wouldn’t happen unless we could read and write files from either Finale or Sibelius. Nobody would care about a ‘standard’ notation format that didn’t work with either of the most popular programs. I based MusicXML on the best academic work of the time by Walter Hewlett and David Huron, and built a two-way converter for Finale that became the Dolet plug-in. Once we had the converter, I knew things would work out if we were persistent and did our jobs well. MakeMusic saw the same thing when I first visited the company back in 2001.”
I was curious what some of the more inventive or surprising uses of MusicXML Michael had seen. “Robert Tuttle’s Quantified Artist presentation at SXSW Interactive 2014 is one of my creative favorites,” he said. “It showed a score displayed alongside biometric data collected from the performers in real time. I also admire the inventive music21 musicology toolkit being built by Prof. Michael Cuthbert’s team at MIT. I was very surprised to see Antares use MusicXML in their Auto-Tune EFX plug-in to generate vocal patterns!”
Michael is thrilled with the MusicXML community. “It has given me tremendous joy over the past 17 years. Many of the best ideas in MusicXML 3.0 have come from the developer community, not from me,” he said. “There are so many creative, passionate, highly-skilled, and nice people in the music notation community. It is a privilege to be able to work together on standards that are so important to so many musicians.”
He encouraged people to get involved in the process. “Join the W3C Music Notation Community Group and participate! Membership is free of charge. We are working on completing MusicXML 3.1, and we could really use more active community participation to make this update as useful as possible. We still have some open issues: How do we want to support grace cue notes? How do we expand the metronome element to better handle metric modulations and tied notes with metronome marks? How do we add support for SMuFL characters that have the same appearance but different semantics? How do we proceed with adding Uniform Type Identifiers for MusicXML files on macOS and iOS systems?”
As far as the future is concerned, “I’m working full-time on MusicXML and related technologies for Finale and SmartMusic,” Michael told me. “We plan for continued improvement in how MusicXML works in these products. I also plan to keep singing with the West Bay Opera chorus in Palo Alto, California. Other things we need to keep as a surprise for the future!”