Beyond iTunes: XML boffins target sheet music

How the tech and music industries come together in 2015

One of the world's oldest and most successful "standards" – so standard in fact that western musical notation is simply called standard notation – does not yet have a standard way to be displayed on the web.

But a W3C group formed earlier this year, in the summer of 2015, hopes to change that.

The Music Notation Community Group consists of representatives from some of the biggest names in the music notation software business who've come together to create a standardised way to display western music notation in your browser.

The group is off to a strong start, having set out a list of what it believes are achievable goals in the next six to 12 months. However, don't look for the W3C to endorse MusicXML, as the proposed standard is known.

Community groups like the Music Notation group are not officially part of the W3C, so the W3C has not yet endorsed the group's efforts. The community groups are more of a starting point. That said, other community groups like the Responsive Images Community Group have managed to get their standards not only written but adopted by web browsers.

It remains to be seen if the new Music Notation Community Group will see the same sort of success, but it does boast members from some of the biggest companies in musical notation business, including MakeMusic, which is transferring the ownership of its MusicXML interchange format to the group.

The MusicXML format is already a de facto standard. According to MakeMusic, "it has been adopted by well over 200 applications, including nearly all the major web, desktop, and mobile notation programs." If you've ever used Soundslice, you've likely seen MusicXML in action. Soundslice even offers an amazing (and free) MusicXML Viewer.

Soundslice's viewer shows what you can already do with MusicXML, HTML5 and JavaScript.

The Music Notation Community Group wants to make MusicXML a standard so that more apps like Soundslice's viewer can be developed against a common underlying standard.

But standardising the XML format and markup is only half the problem of getting standard notation online. The other half of the problem is displaying the actual notes in the browser.


Getting the notes on your screen requires extending Unicode with something the Steinberg company created, dubbed Standard Music Font Layout or SMuFL, for short. No, it's not a long-lost Smurf relative, it's a specification that describes how note symbols get mapped to codes within a score. SMuFL was created by Daniel Spreadbury, now at Steinberg, which has transferred governance of SMuFL to the new W3C Music Notation Community Group.

The task before the community group is to get the rest of the music community involved and on board with these de facto standards and turn them into real standards. As community group leader Michael Good writes in an introductory post, "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."

It's true that standards which "pave the cow paths" tend to be more successful than those which attempt to create something out of thin air. For example, the current state of offline storage in browsers is a mess largely because the first attempts at standards solved problems no one actually had, while ignoring problems that needed solutions.

At the same time, when the cow paths are coming exclusively from large corporations within the surrounding industry, there's always the chance that the cow paths serve those entities more than the developers and musicians who will end up using the standards.

When the group first launched earlier this summer, it put out a call for "a broad range of users engaging in music-related activities involving notation" to join. And indeed they have. Scanning through the group's current membership you'll find software developers, music publishers, composers, performers and music scholars.

What remains now is to take what the companies have already created and re-work it until it fits with what users, and by extension, the open web, need.

That's no small task. Support for sheet music on the web won't be arriving in the latest builds of Chrome any time soon (though as Soundslice's music notation player shows, standard or not, it is possible to create some amazing tools today). The group also has not thus far addressed anything beyond western musical notation, which, while widely used, is far from the only musical notation out there. Any truly broad-reaching standard will eventually need to expand to handle other forms of musical notation.

Still, the Music Notation Community Group appears to be headed in the right direction and, if it can find support in the broader W3C community the way the Responsive Images Community Group eventually did, it may well be the first step in bringing the universal language to the universal web. ®

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