A future history of digital scores

Posted: May 28, 2012 in choral, performance, rehearsal, sheet music, video, webcast

I came across an article by  composer and conductor Reginald Unterseher titled “Enhanced Music Scores: more than notes on paper could ever be…looking back on the ‘00’s from the near future.”  Written in January 2010, it’s a future history of sorts that describes the transition to digital scores, and, well, digital everything.  Some of it is already coming true:

My singers use digital displays rather than paper. The displays are very light, lighter than some of the paper scores they used to hold when we did large works with orchestra, surprisingly thin, and easy to hold for a whole concert.

Some of it sounds technologically feasible but I’m not sure I like it.  In this scenario, I’m not so keen on the idea of a conductor remote-controlling my score:

I tell the singers “let’s start here,” touch the spot where I want us to begin, and all their scores go to that place. It flashes a couple of times so they can see exactly where it is. I touched the 2nd soprano and baritone lines and the starting and end points, so they all know exactly which section we are doing. We work through that passage a few times, and it is still shaky, so I assign that spot to their personal rehearsal list. It will stay on that list until they check it off . I have an automatic record of what I assigned, and when they check it off, it appears that way on my list.

Some of it piques my skepticism but also my interest.  Like this example, where “phoning it in” could actually be a good thing:

For this rehearsal, I was missing a couple singers due to illness and one due to a business trip. The sick ones were able to watch and listen to the rehearsal on the live webcast, log in to their scores via the internet, and partially participate in the rehearsal without infecting other singers. We missed their voices, and it was not as good as people actually singing together in the same physical space (which I think that nothing will ever replace), but they did not miss out nearly as much as they would have otherwise. The singer out on the business trip logged in later and got to see the podcast version of the rehearsal.

And a big point that he hammers home is…

The transition from paper to digital scores was challenging for publishers and music retailers. It required a new way of thinking about their role and what it is that they sell.

Unterseher has envisioned an interesting future that is not at all implausible from a technological standpoint; in many cases the individual tools already exist.  As I see it, though, that future will not arrive without 1) funding, 2) a change in mindset within the musical culture as to how we  performers approach score distribution and the rehearsal process, and 3) major upheaval in the music publishing industry, or at least some revolutionary changes.

Read Unterseher’s full article here.

  1. Thanks for the interesting commentary! I think you are right on with the last three points, especially. When tablet devices replace school textbooks, the financial motivation will increase. The mindset is changing, I see more tablets all the time. I still want a true score reading app, though, not just a music specific pdf reader. As for the music publishing industry, that major upheaval seems to me to be already started. Composers are out in front of the publishers in many areas.

  2. Reginald, thanks for stopping by and commenting. One group in which I’d really like to see a mindset change is the gatekeepers: artistic directors and music librarians, the ones who select the repertoire, browse/shop for music, make the purchase, and distribute the music to their performers. I’d like them to be more aware of digital licensing options and to make digital versions available for their performers. I’m a bit frustrated because I get a lot of, “We will be using Edition X for this performance” where “Edition X” is a reputable edition that they know and trust, but it is also published by a venerable old publishing house that seems to show little if any sign of jumping on the digital bandwagon.

    Which brings me to another of your points: Composers are in the vanguard, and I hope that the aforementioned big traditional publishing houses will follow suit. I’d like to be able to go to Sheet Music Plus and see a digital version available for every item that they sell, so that there is a convenient digital option available even when we’re programming old warhorses.

    The music-specific PDF readers are going to play a huge role as a transitional technology. But I’d like to try out a true score-reading app like you mentioned and see what it can do in terms of reflowing music, hiding/showing parts, etc. If I can find some, I’ll play around with them and blog on it.

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