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NOTATION AND THE INTERNET

July 1, 2001
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When horror-meister Stephen King published his book The Plant, it didn't appear in hardcover, and it didn't go straight to paperback. Instead, it was available exclusively on the Web. Online publishing has become serious business, so it comes as no surprise that the music-publishing industry has also shown a keen interest in it.

Downloadable music offers appealing possibilities that traditional printed music lacks, such as the ability to transpose a piece, customize it through editing, and preview it with audio or MIDI clips. Web-based music notation is a different critter from old-school sheet music, and in some cases, it even offers the opportunity for composers to sell their works directly to the public.

A number of companies have recently set up shop online, from major publishers such as Hal Leonard and Warner Brothers to high-end notation software developers, including Coda, Sibelius, and newcomer NoteHeads.

JUST ADD PAPER

A major part of the cost of sheet music, scores, solo parts, and method books is attributable to printing and distributing hard-copy editions of the music. In addition, wholesalers and retailers must maintain adequate stock, which ties up money and shelf space. Unsold copies become a financial drain and a waste of natural resources.

Online distribution shifts the printing cost to the purchaser, cuts out the middleperson, and solves the problem of ending up with insufficient or excess stock. That lets cost savings pass on to consumers (at least in theory), and it also lowers the startup cost for independent publishers and self-publishers.

Although brick-and-mortar retailers may feel apprehensive, the local music store's demise isn't imminent. Online music publishing still has a few bugs to work out; I experienced minor technical glitches with most programs I tested. In addition, several of the viewer programs are available only for PCs; however, Mac versions are in the works for all of them.

Surprisingly, digital-rights management may not be a troublesome issue. The enterprises I surveyed have restricted the redistribution and reproduction of their wares. Some tag a file so that it won't open on a computer different from the one to which it was originally downloaded; others limit the number of times users can print a piece.

Although it's reasonable to assume that those safeguards are as hackable as other defeated schemes (if not more so), it's unlikely that sheet music will inspire the legions of pirates that digital video and audio have attracted. After all, what hacker wants to brag to his buddies: “I spent six months slicing their watermarking code, but now I can print as many copies of Für Elise as I want!”

A look at several online music publishers and options should provide a sense of where the industry is going.

ROCK ME, AMADEUS

The first stop on the tour is the Italian company Allegroassai (www.allegroassai.com), home of the full-feature notation application Opus 2.6 (see the review in the May 2001 issue) and its entry-level version, Amadeus Opus Lite. Allegroassai has leveraged its code and experience in an effort to become a major music publisher. With more than 1,700 titles already online and a goal of 50,000 works by 2004, the company is well on its way. Allegroassai also plans to make its online publishing technology available to other publishers and to musicians who want to publish their works on Allegroassai's Web site.

To view, play, and print downloaded digital scores requires one of the four members of the cross-platform Opus family. The more you spend, the more control you have over the final result, from adding fingerings, dynamics, and other markings with Opus Editor to having complete editing freedom with Opus. Although the display-only freeware Opus Viewer offers no editing functions, it does allow MIDI playback with complete control of program change assignment, part volume, mute, and solo. You can print as many copies of each document as you need, but each is tagged with the buyer's name, purchase date, and a transaction ID number.

Prices range from less than a dollar to about $15. The complete score to a Bach orchestral suite costs $13.08; a flute part for a single movement is $1.25. Public-domain music from the baroque to the early 20th century makes up the body of Allegroassai's library. You can also purchase scores to Bach's Brandenburg Concertos, Joplin's complete rags in four volumes, or Debussy's Syrinx for solo flute.

The Allegroassai system's biggest weakness is that many of the works provide only a one- or two-bar preview from which you can make a purchase decision (see Fig. 2). Most publishing systems that I've surveyed offer at least a one-page preview, something that Allegroassai recently began implementing for its growing catalog.

O SOLERO MIO

The Solero music viewer is your portal into the world of Sunhawk (www.sunhawk.com), purveyor of “downloadable, interactive sheet music” and old-style hard copies, available by mail order (see Fig. 1). Sunhawk has much to offer; its catalog is graced with venerable music publishers such as Warner Brothers, EMI Christian, Kalmus, Maranatha Music, and Mel Bay.

Solero is a straightforward, no-nonsense, free Windows application that lets users view and play scores downloaded from Sunhawk. It ran well, printed well, and easily played back through my default MIDI device. With Solero, you can change tempo and patches, adjust volume, and solo or mute parts. You can also transpose parts and even change clefs. It took about 30 seconds for short works to download, for authorization to be received, and for the pieces to appear in the viewer.

Solero's print quality is first-rate, but you can print only one copy of a work. (Printing multiple copies is permitted, however, if you purchase multiple-print rights.) Full-page previews are available for most pieces. Sunhawk offers music in a range of genres, from classical works such as a Vivaldi flute concerto to pop songs from the repertoires of artists such as Britney Spears. Dave Brubeck's Blue Rondo a la Turk is available, as is Steven Curtis Chapman's Busy Man.

Prices are typically $4.95 for single songs in piano and vocal arrangements; collections of five songs by an artist are $9.95. Although neither price represents great savings over traditional sheet music, you save on shipping, and you don't have to wait.

Currently, Sunhawk won't publish a visitor's work. In fact, it doesn't even indicate which notation program it uses to prepare its collection. The company's real attraction is the stable of writers and artists that it represents. With headliners such as Stephen Sondheim, Diane Warren, the Dixie Chicks, and Twila Paris, there's a lot to like at Sunhawk's Web site, and it's all just a click away.

CLUB CODA

The makers of Finale have created a showcase in which customers can display their works. Built around a Windows browser plug-in called Finale MusicViewer, Finale Showcase (www.codamusic.com/coda/fs_home.asp) lets you view, print, transpose, and listen to MIDI renditions of works posted by showcase members. The musical content and the caliber of score preparation are therefore a reflection of the members' varied talents, but then again, no payment is involved.

The viewer plug-in allows speedy score downloads and displays them in a window-within-a-window view with double sets of scrollbars (see Fig. 3). Performance data is retained during MIDI playback. For some reason, playback stopped every time I clicked on a scrollbar to browse the score, but when I left it alone, the score scrolled to follow playback. Finale MusicViewer's printing is flexible, and the output is top quality.

THINGS2COME

Net4Music (www.net4music.com) takes a different approach from the companies covered so far. With no apparent notation software to leverage, Net4Music simply wrote a cross-platform rights-management plug-in for Adobe Acrobat, and it distributes scores as PDFs. That means no MIDI playback, transposition, or editing is provided. To offset those limitations, some works offer a Sample button that plays a MIDI version of the piece. When you purchase a file from Net4Music, it is e-mailed to you as an attachment.

Net4Music offers works from the catalogs of EMI and Schott, among others, and enables musicians to publish their own works. You can submit a score in Cubase, Finale, Logic, Sibelius, or Score formats to be converted to Acrobat. Prices tend toward the $3 to $5 range, with pop tunes by the Commodores or Brandy going for $3.95. The score to Mark O'Connor's Appalachian Waltz is $5; the violin, viola, and cello parts are $3 each. Self-publishing musicians get 40 percent of the sale price.

Net4Music almost doesn't belong with the other companies mentioned, because it's selling what amounts to scans of sheet music, not enhanced digital alternatives to sheet music. That seems likely to change, however, now that the company has merged with Coda. Net4Music announced plans to incorporate Coda's SmartMusic intelligent-accompaniment technology, which will provide the missing playback and editing ingredients to its lineup.

FRESH SHEETS

SheetMusicNow.com, like Net4Music, built its system around Adobe Acrobat files, but SheetMusicNow.com uses a Windows plug-in called SafePublish to secure files. You can print three times within seven days, after which the file expires. Playback and editing functions are not supported, though MIDI excerpts are available for some titles. Graphic previews of about a third of a page are also available.

The site's repertoire covers a range of styles, including pieces by Chick Corea, the guitar and recorder duos of Michala Petri and Lars Hannibal, and trumpet virtuoso Timofei Dokshizer's personal editions of his recorded works. Although it's not yet a huge collection, its eclecticism is commendable. Prices are generally $3.50 to $15. The print quality is excellent, though the page layout is not always top-drawer. Acrobat is certainly an important tool and a simple solution for publishers, but it's a shame to see another publisher ignore the power of “real” virtual sheet music.

EAGER IGOR

Swedish software developer NoteHeads (www.noteheads.com) features a nifty little viewer carved from the code of Igor Engraver, the company's high-end notation program. Igor Reader is a standalone Windows application (a Mac version is in beta) that lets visitors view, play back, and print downloaded works.

Available repertoire leans heavily toward the self-published variety, though a recent deal with the Swedish pop group A-Teens to make its catalog available online shows that NoteHeads intends to broaden its base. Works range from $1 for an arrangement of Hava Nagila to $25 for a modern wind composition by the company's founder, Peter Bengtson. Contributors get 50 percent or more of the purchase price and can specify whether viewing, playback, and printing should be allowed prior to purchase.

It's too early to judge NoteHeads' potential, because its catalog has barely more than a hundred works. Igor Reader seems solid, and the engraving quality is good. It all comes down to content: if you build it, they will come.

SCORCHED SCORES

From the makers of Sibelius comes ScorchMusic (www.scorchmusic.com), a self-publishing venture with promise. The Scorch viewer for Mac or Windows (see Fig. 4) offers digital sheet music done right: a full-page view of the music, transport controls for MIDI playback, a slider for changing tempo, a button to print the first page for free, and controls that let you change the first instrument or change keys if the composer permits.

Better still, Scorch features Sibelius's Espressivo playback options for intelligent interpretation of dynamics and articulations as well as composer-definable degrees of swing, which is a huge advantage over the competition.

ScorchMusic sets all the prices, which range from free to $9.95, depending on the number of pages. Extracted parts are also available for an additional charge. Contributors receive 50 percent of the net sale price. ScorchMusic tracks MIDI-playback auditions and pays royalties to performing-rights agencies for that use.

Scorch's online viewing and playback technology is available to Sibelius users, and Sibelius Internet Edition extends its capabilities for commercial use. In addition, Scorch has been adopted by Sheet Music Direct publisher Hal Leonard (www.sheetmusicdirect.com), retailer J. W. Pepper, and other major forces in the traditional music-publishing arena.

NOTEWORTHY MUSIC

Musicnotes Viewer from Musicnotes.com is your ticket to more than 10,000 works of digital sheet music from Warner Brothers, Mel Bay, Hal Leonard, Boosey and Hawkes, C. F. Peters, and several other publishers. At first glance, Musicnotes.com's Windows-based viewer plug-in, with its window-within-a-window design, is a dead ringer for Coda's Finale MusicViewer, but Musicnotes Viewer requires a separate player for MIDI playback. That's only a minor nuisance, however, because both programs are small downloads and work well together.

First-page previews are playable and printable. Purchasing a piece means shelling out from $4.95 for Bruce Hornsby's The Way It Is to $7.95 for a detailed guitar-tab transcription of Led Zeppelin's Stairway to Heaven. The selection is impressive, and the technology is user-friendly.

SCORING BIG

Somebody clearly thinks that digital sheet music is the distribution model of the future. The major notation software developers are leading the way, and some real powerhouses of traditional publishing are getting in on the act. The first wave of technology is promising, with useful features such as MIDI playback and transposition. Moreover, the printed output from the viewer programs is very high quality.

Darwinian reality has finally hit the Web, though, and online music publishers will survive according to the quality and quantity of their content. That certainly favors purveyors of pop piano/vocal parts such as Sunhawk and Musicnotes.com, but the Web's egalitarian nature still leaves plenty of room for niche publishing and self-publishing. Based on what I've seen, the technology for digital music distribution will not be a limiting factor.


Brian Smithers eagerly awaits the technological breakthrough that will enable online distribution of Diet Mountain Dew. While he waits, he keeps busy as a teacher, woodwind artist, and clinician.

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