Music to my Eyes!

I’m proud to have helped in the formation of the new W3C Music Notation Community Group. It’s a free and open group, and if you’re interested in the future of digital music representation, you should join now!

Chopin Prelude Opus 28, No. 7

Here’s a little history for you.

When I was kicking off the W3C Audio Incubator Group in 2010, which would spawn the Audio Working Group a year later, I knew that the Web platform needed the ability to generate and process audio, not just play back prerecorded audio streams. I didn’t know how the technology worked (and I’m still fuzzy on it); I didn’t know all of the use cases and requirements; I didn’t know the industry; I didn’t know the culture; I didn’t know the people; and I certainly didn’t know what the future held.

What I did know was that Flash was dying, and all the Web audio projects that had relied on Flash would need a new platform. And I knew that it was important that we somehow capture and encode this important cultural expression. And I knew how to find passionate people who knew all the things I didn’t, and I knew that if I gave them a place to talk (and a little gentle coaching), they would know how to make audio on the Web a reality. I wasn’t disappointed: a demo of the Audio Data API prototype by David Humphrey and Corban Brook rekindled my interest in a Web audio API; Alistair MacDonald led the initial effort as chair of the Audio Incubator Group, providing context and connections for starting the work; Chris Rogers, who designed Apple’s Core Audio before moving to Google, wrote the WebKit implementation and the early drafts of the Web Audio API; Olivier Thereaux and Chris Lowis from BBC picked up the the chair baton for the W3C Audio WG, later handing it to the capable Joe Berkovitz (Noteflight) and Matthew Paradis (BBC); and Chris Wilson (Google) and Paul Adenot (Mozilla) stepped up as editors of the Web Audio API spec when Chris Rogers moved along.

Thanks to the hard work by these and many other dedicated people, we are close to stabilizing the Web Audio API –which is a synthesizer/DSP/mixing board/audio processor in the browser– and we have commitments from all the major browser vendors to implement and ship it. We also have the Web MIDI API, which is not a way to play back bleep-beep-blorp MIDI files in your browser, but a way to control MIDI devices (e.g. musical instruments) via your browser, and vice versa.

These are pretty obvious technologies for W3C to develop. But the scope of the audio standardization work wasn’t always so clear. There was a vocal contingent among the interested parties that wanted us to standardize a music notation format… like HTML for music.

At the time, we decided this was not our priority, not only because it would dilute our focus from an already daunting task, and not only because it was a relatively niche market, but because there was already a winner in the music notation format space: MusicXML. And Michael Good, the creator and maintainer of MusicXML, made it clear that it had been a challenging undertaking, for a competitive market, and that he wasn’t ready to bring MusicXML to a formal standards body.

But the metronome ticks on, and times change. MusicXML was acquired by MakeMusic, a major music software vendor, and Michael began to warm to the idea of his creation having a home at a vendor-neutral standards body like W3C (with Joe Berkovitz patiently encouraging him); at the same time, Daniel Spreadbury (Steinberg) was developing SMuFL (Standard Music Font Layout), and together they encouraged their companies to bring their music standards under the care of a W3C Community Group.

Thus, two weeks ago, we formed the Music Notation Community Group, and already over 160 people have joined the group! Normally, W3C staff doesn’t devote resources to Community Groups, but Ivan Herman and I lent our W3C experience to the transfer and group formation in our spare time, because we saw the cultural value in having music representation on the Web (though unlike all the other people mentioned in this blog post, I’m sadly musically illiterate… “they also serve who only standardize”). Michael, Daniel, and Joe are co-chairing the group, and we’re looking forward to lively conversations.

Music and technical standards may seem like strange bedfellows, but there’s a long tradition there. The New Yorker, in a piece on HTML5 entitled “The Group That Rules the Web” by Paul Ford, referenced a 1908 article in Music Trade Review about player piano standards. In a hauntingly familiar account, the face-to-face meeting of a committee of industry leaders decided upon a nine-to-the-inch perforation scale for player piano rolls (think punch cards on scrolls). The rise and fall of the player piano industry is a fascinating read, and should give us perspective on how we build for eternity and for change.

Will MusicXML (or its successor) ever be natively supported by browsers, so that we can see it, read it, and edit it without the need for JavaScript (and SVG) rendering? Possibly not, if we learn from the history of the even more critical MathML, which still is not properly supported in browsers. But even if it is never natively supported, there are good reasons to have a vendor-neutral digital music notation format for the Web:

  • Simple interchange between music applications, both desktop and (increasingly) Web-based.
  • Annotation, which is common among musicians. As with any kind of data, the representation is the thing that is the proximal target for annotation, but it’s the data that should be annotated; as an example, I might have some CSV data, which I can render as a bar chart, line chart, or pie chart, but an annotation should apply to all chart types, that is, it is inherent in the underlying data, not in the rendering. Similarly, it’s not the SVG <path> or <use> element that represents a musical note that should be annotated, but the underlying music data model.
  • A DOM representation, which can be read and modified by JavaScript, flowed and laid out with CSS, and which could serve as custom elements for a MusicML component library.

And after all, past is prelude, and who knows what the future holds?

As your reward for reading this whole meandering post, here in full is the news article on the historic and infamous Gathering of the Player Men at Buffalo, for your edification and enjoyment, as an image and a OCR transcription, for posterity.

Gathering of the Player Men at Buffalo article

Gathering of the Player Men at Buffalo.

First Meeting of Player Manufacturers Ever Held in This Country—Discussions Anent the Number of Perforations to the Inch for a Standard Roll—Meeting Called to Order by L. L. Dowd—Addresses by Various Representatives Who Argue That Their Position Is the Correct One—Motion to Lay the Matter Over to Convention in Detroit Is Lost—Finally Votey’s Mo­tion Agreeing Upon Nine Perforations to the Inch Is Adopted.

(Special to The Review.)

Buffalo, N. Y., Dec. 10, 1908.

Pursuant to a call issued by the A. B. Chase Co., Norwalk, O., the piano player manufacturers and their representatives gathered in this city to-day, with the object in view of settling the vexed question of the scale to be used for the 88-note players. The player trade was well rep­resented at this first meeting, which may be said to almost reach the dignity of a convention.

There is unquestionably a decided difference of opinion as to the number of perforations re­quired on the music roll to the inch. There are some who hold that the 88-note roll should be no longer than the present 65-note roll. Leading makers hold that nine-to-the-inch must neces­sarily be the standard adopted, and the advo­cates of the nine-to-the-inch won at this meeting.

The first meeting was held at the Hotel Iro­quois, in this city, and opened shortly after ten. The score of delegates present constituted a truly representative gathering, the majority of the leading manufacturers having someone to look after their interests and express their opinions.

The following were present: Wm. J. Keeley, the Autopiano Co., New York; H. W. Metcalf, representing the Simplex Piano Co., Worces­ter, Mass.; the Wilcox & White Co., Meriden, Conn.; J. W. Macy, the Baldwin Co., Cincinnati, O.; E. S. Votey, the Aeolian Co., New York; R. A. Rodesch, the Rodesch Piano Co., Dixon, Ill.; T. M. Pletcher, the Melville Clark Piano Co., Chicago; Gustave Behning, the Behning Piano Co., New York; H. C. Frederici, the Clav­iola Co. and the American Perforated Music Co., New York; J. H. Dickinson, the Gulbransen-Dick­inson Co., Chicago; Otto Higel, Otto Higel Co., Toronto, Ont; D. W. Bayer, Chase & Baker Co., Buffalo, N. Y.; H. Keuchen, Shaw Piano Co., Baltimore. Md.; Chas. G. Gross, Chas. M. Stieff, Baltimore, Md.; Paul E. F. Gottschalk, Niagara Music Co., Buffalo, N. Y.; E. B. Bartlett, W. W. Kimball Co., Chicago; P. B. Klitgh, Cable Com­pany, Chicago; J. A. Stewart, Farrand Co., De­troit, Mich.; L. L. Doud, A. B. Chase Co., Nor­walk, 0.; J. H. Parnham, Hardman, Peck & Co., New York; and J. H. Chase and Jacob Heyl, of the Chase & Baker Co., Buffalo, N. Y.

The meeting was called to order by L. L. Doud, who briefly pointed out the necessity of reaching some definite understanding regarding the best form of music roll for 88-note players and the number of perforations to the inch that would give best results from the viewpoint of both manufacturer and public. Mr. Doud stated that as the 88-note player was but in its infancy, now is the time to adopt some standard music roll that will aid the purchaser in obtaining the best results from a maximum number of rolls to select from—in other words, that the purchaser be not confined to one particular make of music roll and the natural limitations of such a list. At present 6 and 9 perforations to the inch rep­resent the two extremes, the Aeolian Co.’s 12-to-the-inch roll being more in the nature of an ex­periment.

The gentlemen present then selected Mr. Doud as chairman and Mr. Chase as secretary, and then the representatives were called upon to give their individual opinions and make sugges­tions, with the good of the various manufactur­ers and the satisfaction of the public, the real judge and jury, in mind.

T. M. Pletcher, representing the Melville Clark Piano Co., was the first to speak, and said that in the opinion of his company the six-to-the-inch perforations afforded greater possibilities from a musical standpoint, in view of the greater quantity of air controlled by the perforations. Mr. Pletcher added, however, that his company were willing to abide by the sense of the con­vention, and had, in fact, already turned out a number of player-pianos using rolls with nine perforations to the inch.

R. A. Rodesch, who has adopted eight perfora­tions to the inch, then spoke on the subject of a standard roll, and held that such a measurement as he used withstood climatic changes better than the nine-to-the-inch roll, and thereby in­sured proper tracking. Mr. Rodesch held, as did the majority of those present, that the double tracker board, one adapted to 65-note rolls, was a necessity for the present at least, affording pro­tection to both dealer and customer.

In setting forth the Cable Company’s stand, P. B. Klugh said that the nine-to-the-inch scale had been adopted by that company and they were not open to argument on the subject, as such a scale had given entire satisfaction. Mr. Klugh offered as a solution of the improper track­ing question, the adoption of an adjustable end to the roll, which when pressed against a loosely-rolled music roll would force perforations into perfect alignment. He also gave it as his opin­ion that the habit of twisting the roll as tightly as possible before playing was a mistake, as when held tightly, proper adjustment of the roll was impossible. Mr. Klugh stated that when the purchaser understood the secret of this method of adjustment the nine-to-the-inch roll would give entire satisfaction in every instance.

J. H. Parnham also stated that Hardman, Peck & Co. had found no trouble with rolls cut nine-to-the-inch, either before or after selling.

Gustave Behning then informed the meeting that his company had found the nine-to-the-inch scale so satisfactory that they had begun to cut the 65-note music with smaller perforations and with excellent results.

The meeting then adjourned until the after­noon.

The Afternoon Session.

The afternoon session was called to order at 2 p.m., and some time was given over to a gen­eral discussion of the relative value of the rolls having eight and nine perforations to the inch, respectively. Mr. Rodesch offered for examina­tion a number of rolls cut on the eight-to-the-inch scale, which were compared with one of nine shown by Mr. Votey.

The general discussion was here interrupted for the purpose of considering whether or not to finally adopt the 88-note roll in preference to the 85-note roll. Mr. Heyl, of the Chase & Baker Co., spoke at length on the subject, stating that in Europe pianos of seven-octave range, or 85 notes, cutting of the three treble notes, were manufactured in considerable quantities and had a ready sale. In support of the statement, how­ever, that the 88-notes were needed, Mr. Heyl offered the following figures: Out of 3,838 com­positions cut by the Chase & Baker Co., 1,130 needed only 65 notes; 2,425, 78 notes; 2,542 needed 80 notes; 2,660 required 83 notes, and 3,676 could be cut in an 85-note range.

A motion was made and carried that the music be cut to the full 88 notes. It was also moved and carried that the rolls be made with a standard width of 11¼ inches, leaving a mar­gin in each side for future development, it being acknowledged that any advance in future would need the margin in its consummation.

Mr. Rodesch here proposed that the final set­tlement of the perforation question be postponed until the annual meeting of the National Manu­facturers Association, to be held in Detroit next June, that the matter could be more thoroughly studied, and several of those present concurred with him in that opinion, but the general sense of the body was that such a postponement would only increase the feeling of uncertainty among both manufacturers and dealers and cause addi­tional trouble for those manufacturers who were turning out players and music rolls that would not conform with the standard agreed upon.

Mr. Votey then made a motion, which was unanimously carried, to the effect that the mat­ter be decided at once. A standing vote was taken and twelve were found to favor the nine-to-the-inch scale, with only six backing the eight-to-the-inch standard. Upon motion the vote in favor of nine perforations as a standard scale was declared unanimous.

Thus, with a little over four hours discussion, a question was settled that has caused much worriment to the trade for over a year past, and especially so within the last few months. With a standard roll all manufacturers have a chance to do business, for a purchaser can go anywhere and get any selection he desires to play, and is not confined to one list, often restricted.

Mr. Votey, following the settlement of the per­foration standard, offered a suggestion, which was accepted, to the effect that the manufac­turers adopt for the 88-note music rolls the spool about being used by the Aeolian Co. The new spool has clutches inserted in the ends instead of pins, and attachments are furnished for in­serting in the holders on the player, the other end being arranged to fit the clutches placed within the ends of the spool. This new spool, Mr. Votey claims, makes proper tracking a sim­ple proposition, as the roll can be held tightly and accurately, a difficult feat where the pin is used, especially if it is driven into a spool made of cross-grained wood. The spool is also fitted with an adjustable end which may be pressed against the music roll in such a way as to force the perforations into alignment. While this ad­justable end is patented, the Aeolian Co. have not, nor will not, patent the clutch, offering it for the free use of other manufacturers. The individual manufacturers, too, may invent an adjustable end that will not conflict with the patented article, but give the same result.

The question of price also came up before the meeting, and while no action was taken, it was strongly suggested that while the field was a new one, manufacturers should insure both themselves and the dealer a fair and liberal profit while the opportunity offers. Mr. Votey here stated that the Aeolian Co. would sell their 88-note rolls at the same price as the 65-note, believing that in large quantities they can be made nearly as cheaply. This company are also considering the making of player-pianos with only one tracker, that for 88-note rolls.

J. H. Dickinson, of the Gulbransen-Dickinson Co., suggested that the player-piano and music roll manufacturers present effect a permanent organization for meeting at stated times and dis­cussing such questions as interest the meetings. As most of the firms represented were members of the National Manufacturers Association, Mr. Dickinson’s suggestion was not acted upon.

At the close of the convention of player-piano and music roll manufacturers, Paul E. V. Gottschalk, general manager of the Niagara Music Co., Buffalo, presented each one present with a music roll bearing “The Convention March,” composed by Paul R. Godeska, and “Dedicated to the Convention of Player-Piano Manufacturers, held at the Iroquois Hotel, Buf­falo, N. Y., December 10, 1908.” The roll was in a handsome box decorated with holly and made a pleasing souvenir.