Dr.Godfried-Willem RAES

Kursus Experimentele Muziek: Boekdeel 5: Notatie en Muzieksoftware

Hogeschool Gent : Departement Muziek & Drama

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Overgenomen van Internet.

File taken from internet. Author: Gerd Castan. If you are online, please go to the original source directly. The following text may not reflect to most recent version.


Common music notation and computers:


If you are working with computers, you should avoid going to the next store and ask "I'm seeking for a program that...". Doing so, you are in a bad situation, because it gives the manufacturer too much power over you and you'll be punished soon.

Experience shows a much better situation for customers when you decide to use standard file formats and standard protocols and buy the software that fits to this decision.

Software markets based on standard file formats and standard protocols evolve whereas "standard" programs in monopoly situations slow down development.

Example 1: The internet. Put any computers with arbitrary operating systems together and it just works. The reason: they all work with standard protocols like TCP/IP.

Example 2: The World Wide Web. This isn't a program, it's a standard file format (html) and a standard protocol (http). The success arises, because you can use any computer with a WWW browser from any source and it works. Usually. To create it, you can choose from a lot of tools (I'm using one of my favorite text editors right now) and it works. You can youse different servers. And suddenly we have something fascinating whith an explosive growth for the benefit of all.

Example 3: The platform Java. Java is a definition of a free available proramming language an platform. Take a compiler of an arbitrary manufacturer. Apart from usual differences in quality you can exchange them. The programs run on most operating systems with declining problems and good prices.

When we are talking about score printing, the examples above show that we have good reasons to care about standard formats and data exchange.

There are some 80 to 90 Score printing programs worldwide. They share a small market and manufacterers have a mean number of about two programmers.

Doubtless, you are buying a great score printing program. Are you sure, that the small company behind this program still exists in five years? Experience shows that you will have a new computer with a completetely new operating system architecture every five years. Are you sure that there will be a new version of your program that fits?

The answers aren't optimistic. At least, you want so save your data. The MIDI file format is not accurate, most essential score printing informations get lost.

There is another reason to care about exchange: There are some musical score scanning programs. They are not good but getting better. How do you get the data into your facvorite score printing program? (I'm not saying that that an usable musical score scanning program exists at all.)

So a very good reason for the selection of a score printing program are the supported standard exchange formats.

Musical notation codes

General information

The most comprehensive literature is the book Beyond MIDI

There is an overview Music Encoding Standards maintained by Steve Mounce and The Computational Score by Francesco Giomi, Notation Theory Links and the Digital Media & Music Center pages of the University of Virginia Library.


Almost every score printing program supports the MIDI file format: MIDI Farm, FTP: MIDI specification. You should not attempt to use it to exchange data between score printing programs (and archives) if you have additional ways.

Nevertheless, MIDI is the first data format a score printing program has to support. A good book on this topic is Musik-Programmierung.


The NIFF format

NIFF is the first standard code for musical notation. It has been developed by several manufacturers, listed on the homepage of the project leader Prof. Alan Belkin and finished in fall 1995.

The great number of symbol classes covered by NIFF is impressing. In this regard NIFF is designed that it's simple to be extended.

I collected several links on NIF because NIFF is - together with GUIDO - the only existing standard to exchange musical scores and because this standard is supported by some programs. So NIFF is important if you are buying a score printing program now. In my oppinion, some design principles behind NIFF aren't adequate (RIFF, layout more important than the meaning...). Additional information:

Programs which support NIFF


The DARMS code aka Ford-Columbia Code

More widespread than NIFF (in the academical area) and much older is DARMS. There is no standard an many dialects. The best source I've found is the book Alexander Brinkman: Pascal Programming for Music Research. Chicago: University of Chicago Press (1990) und Beyond MIDI.

Programs which support DARMS

There are several extensions to DARMS for special tasks like Lute Code or mensural notation. See Beyond MIDI.


SMDL (ISO/IEC 10743) is also a standard. It builds on SGML (ISO 8879) and HyTime (ISO/IEC 10744). The problem: this standard isn't finished. The project members waited for the second edition of HyTime which was finished in 1997.

A comprehensive list of links in on SMDL Page by Tomas Friberg.

Some overviews:

Download (FTP) of the actual draft: pdf or PS.

GUIDO Music Notation Language

A new format is GUIDO. You can try online how GUIDO code looks as graphic.

The main design principles are the use of ascii and extensibility. The notation of the single elements resembles to TeX.

Three levels of GUIDO are planned:

The three levels build on each other. Basic GUIDO is part of Advanced GUIDO which is part of Extended GUIDO itself. The number of programs that support GUIDO is small.

I know of one additional producer of a Score printing program who is interested in GUIDO.

Libraries in C and Java are planed to spread the GUIDO format.


There are several score macro packages for TeX by Donald Knuth, which is avaliable on every platform. (btw: where is TeX for Java?).

The big drawback is the lack of an usable frontend for these macro packages. Nobody really wants to write the macros manually.

Chris Walshaw invented the input language abc and the translation program for this packages.

His concept has been so successful, that there are many programs now which use abc without TeX. With 10000+ available tunes, abc is perhaps the most common format on the internet.

Unlike other formats I haven't collected any examles. Chris Walshaw has done a good job with his abc pages. I can't supercede his pages.


No standard: The **kern-Format is documented. I know of no use outside Humdrum Toolkit bekannt.

Mudela, the Music-Definition Language

No standard: Mudela, the Music-Definition Language is the input language of LilyPond.

[gwr note: this is our favorite notation software! cfr. http://www.lilypond.org]

MNML - The Musical Notation Markup Language

Just to be comprehensive: MNML almost can't represent anything but notes and rests. Even staccato points and slurs are missing.


Just to be comprehensive: MusicML almost can't represent anything but notes and rests. Even staccato points and slurs are missing.

The interesting point is to use XML at all, because its the fundamental standard for exchange of documents. But you should't stick to hierarchical structures like in this example. And you should'nt mention the parser of a specific vendor in a DTD since the task of a DTD is to allow the use of arbitrary parsers.

Sources on the WWW

The Big Site of Music Notation and Engraving contains a comprehensive and well structured overview of design elements of musical notation and a good bibliography.

Printed Music Worldwide lists publishing houses for printed music.

ARA Computerised-Engravers Directory lists individuals involved in score printing.

Astounished I noticed that Christopher Raymond Baker covers the same subjects on his homepage as I do. Here his Informations about musial notation.

RISM - Répertoire International des Sources Musicales is collecting a database of old music - with its own format.

Music and Computers has an actual rating of musical score programs.

Harmony Central provides an overview of Computer Music Resources.

Again the same topic by Dr. Elisabeth Hinkle-Turner with a long list of literature.

A thesis on Optical Music Recognition.

About input mechanisms for music notation software including standard file formats.

Bookmarks for Han-Wen Nienhuys, author of LilyPond.

International Conference on new Musical Notation University of Ghent, Belgium (1974).

PADS (Performing Arts Data Service) wants integrate SMDL and NIFF with the project MuTaTeD! - Music Tagging Type Definition More links in Directory of PADS Music Resources.

Representation of Music by Adnan Gulzar.

Input Mechanisms For Music Notation Software by David G. Slomin.

Access to Computerized Music Production by Blind andVision-Impaired Musicians by Jay Williams.

Survey of existing music Projects

Telematics for Libraries Music resources, projects and Services.

Music resources on indiana.edu.


Computer Music Journal is a quarterly journal that mainly covers computer generated music and a little music notation, congresses, hints to and reviews of scientific works. The online info is good, too.

The same topic with more emphasis to music notation and more specialized research topics like historic music notation is covered by the yearly publishedComputing in Musicology. Not much online information. The printed work is good.



by Justus Noll, publishing house Addison-Wesley, Bonn (1994)(German).
explains good, comprehensive and platform independant all standard variants of the MIDI format. The following short part is a Windows specific implementation of a MIDI recorder and player. Real programs on this topic are much better.

Very recommendable.

A book about MIDI is replaceable. The following books are unique and it's very hard to obtain the respective information in another way.

Filedate: 990203

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