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Introducing the Music Notation Community Group

Welcome to the W3C Music Notation Community Group! The Music Notation Community Group develops and maintains format and language specifications for notated music used by web, desktop, and mobile applications.

The group aims to serve a broad range of users engaging in music-related activities involving notation. These users include, among others, software developers, music publishers, composers, performers, students, listeners, scholars and librarians. Some of the activities covered include composing, arranging, preparing, performing, teaching, learning, studying, and enjoying notated music.

Music notation formats have become much more interoperable over the past decade. There is still much room for improvement in making music notation work for the web and other digital applications. This includes improving music notation representation and music notation font formats for web and interactive use.

The initial task of the Community Group is to maintain and update the MusicXML and SMuFL (Standard Music Font Layout) specifications. The goals are to evolve the specifications to handle new use cases and technologies, including greater use of music notation on the web, while maximizing the existing investment in implementations of the existing MusicXML 3.0 and SMuFL specifications.

Photo of Community Group co-chairs Joe Berkovitz, Michael Good, and Daniel Spreadbury Music Notation Community Group Co-Chairs Joe Berkovitz, Michael Good, and Daniel Spreadbury at MusicXML Community Meeting, Musikmesse 2015

Music notation has been on the web for most of its history, starting with proprietary applications like Sheet Music Direct and Sunhawk in the late 1990s. However, at that time there was no effective way to transfer music notation between applications. Desktop applications like Finale and Sibelius could not share music with each other, nor with the new generation of web applications.

Michael Good invented the MusicXML format in 2000 to create a standard interchange format for music notation applications. It has been adopted by well over 200 applications, including nearly all the major web, desktop, and mobile notation applications. Hundreds of musicians and developers have contributed to its development since MusicXML 0.1 was first announced to the public 15 years ago.

As people relied more on MusicXML for interchange, more focus emerged on the remaining problems in notation interchange. One major problem was the lack of standardization of music fonts. While there is a Western Musical Symbols range within the Unicode standard, it is too limited for most notation use and none of the major software applications use it. The lack of font standardization made it difficult to automate either document exchange or font substitution.

Daniel Spreadbury invented the Standard Music Font Layout (SMuFL) in 2013 to resolve these issues. SMuFL 1.0 was released last year and has received increasing adoption from font makers and software vendors. As with MusicXML, many software developers, font developers, and musicians have contributed to the SMuFL format since its public unveiling 2 years ago.

Both MusicXML and SMuFL have been managed as single company efforts with a single format editor making final decisions. Recordare developed MusicXML through version 3.0 before Recordare’s assets were sold to MakeMusic in 2011. Steinberg has developed SMuFL since its inception.

MakeMusic’s purchase of Recordare changed the dynamics of the MusicXML community. Recordare had been an independent vendor, generally not competing with other companies who implemented the MusicXML format in their products. MakeMusic’s Finale and SmartMusic products on the other hand compete with many products in the music engraving and music education markets. The past few years have also seen a lot of turbulence in the music notation market. MakeMusic and Noteflight have new owners; Daniel Spreadbury and many former Sibelius developers have moved from Avid to Steinberg.

All these changes have led to an increased desire to have music notation formats like MusicXML and SMuFL be developed by a standards organization independent of a single vendor. While some standards organizations have attempted to create new formats from scratch without leveraging the traction gained by existing formats, this group’s aim is to evolve standards that have actually taken root in the software community.

Joe Berkovitz from Noteflight/Hal Leonard has led the effort to move MusicXML and SMuFL development to a W3C Community Group. W3C Community Groups provide a way to combine the benefit of a standards organization while avoiding its drawbacks. First, W3C Community Groups have no membership fee, though companies can of course join the W3C if they wish full access to the W3C standards development process.

W3C Community Groups are also self-governing and can use a more rapid decision-making process than is usually required by standards organizations. MusicXML and SMuFL still need active development – for instance, to increase MusicXML’s support for the wider range of music symbols that SMuFL fonts offer.

The MusicXML and SMuFL communities need a home where updates to formats can still happen quickly without large additional costs. W3C Community Groups address this need, and pave the way for a potential later phase in which an open standard is approved as a full W3C Recommendation.

Another reason to move MusicXML and SMuFL development to the W3C is to support the growing use of music notation on the web, and the ever-increasing transition from paper to digital sheet music. W3C is the home to many web technologies that could benefit MusicXML and SMuFL, and MusicXML and SMuFL address difficult problems in the music notation domain that could help inform related web standards.

Michael and Daniel have discussed this potential change of governance with the MusicXML and SMuFL developer communities over the past few months, with Joe leading a discussion at this year’s MusicXML Community Meeting at Musikmesse. These communities are largely in favor of this change. The current host companies, MakeMusic and Steinberg, have also given their approval to transfer development of these formats to the W3C Music Notation Community Group.

The Music Notation Community Group’s initial tasks will be to maintain the MusicXML and SMuFL formats. There is an immediate need for a MusicXML update that has better SMuFL support and other smaller-scale fixes, clarifications, and updates. Over time, MusicXML has an opportunity to evolve to support more semantics behind notational appearance and better incorporate web technologies to support more use cases. The Community Group will determine which of these changes will happen in the next MusicXML update and which will occur in future releases.

Michael and Daniel are delighted that their companies have agreed to transfer development of MusicXML and SMuFL to the W3C Music Notation Community Group. Michael, Daniel, and Joe look forward to the community joining us in our new organizational home to continue moving music notation forward on the web, the printed page, and everywhere in between.

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