Open-Source Music

I am an abashed (no pun intended) fiddler—and I don’t mean I play violin. Recently I’ve been tipping my toes into the water of open-source development for fun, learning basics of git, CLIs, SQL, Emacs Lisp, various bits and pieces of various programming languages and frameworks, along with music-related languages and frameworks like Csound, PureData (I’m fairly competent already with Cycling 74’s Max, which shares a common ancestor with PD) and then, finally Lilypond.

It’s, essentially, a niche tool and programming language for typesetting sheet music. In short, Lilypond:Music::Latex:Words. It’s pretty difficult and slow to work with, though I’m wondering how much this has to do with my newbieness and how much is inherent with the tool. I could see myself potentially becoming fairly proficient and quick with it and using it as a legitimate compositional tool.

It does have its advantages. Because its documents are human-readable (by programming standards, mind you) plain text, it can utilize version controlling with Git. Alongside this, collaboration becomes a possibility, with public hosting on sites like Github. It’s easy to imagine a sort of “open source symphony,” where composers can collaborate on making a piece of music, musicians testing out passages and providing feedback on playability via Github issues, composers fixing these “bugs,” outside composers suggesting changes via pull requests. One could do something similar to Lou Harrison and John Cage’s Double Music, which would now be very easy to compile at the end.

For academia, this could also be an amazing tool for open sourcing textbooks. Imagine if learning Lilypond and contributing to a standardized music textbook were required for every DMA student. Imagine how much more quickly problems of standards could be solved using these kinds of tools, when musicologists could simply code out different possibilities and vote on which ones seem to work best. If a particular school decided something wasn’t working for them, they could tweak the “standard textbook” or add some of their own examples to it, possibly proposing these additions to the core text after some refinement. Imagine how much money music undergrads could save if they could find their texts on Github rather than paying literally hundreds of dollars for texts that get new editions every couple of years. Imagine, also, how much more accessible this kind of knowledge would then be to those who don’t have the money to attend college but want to study music.

Obviously this is a bit of a pipedream for the present, but the predecessors to these ideas already exist[1]. Unfortunately, however, the contributors are few and far between. This is one of the reasons that learning coding should be an absolute priority for all students. Folks like to think that this kind of knowledge simply doesn’t apply to them, that they can’t utilize these skills in their fields. Sorry to say, they’re wrong. The possibilities are easy to imagine.

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