The Music Encoding Conference 2014 – some reflections

From 20 to 23 May the Music Encoding Conference 2014 took place at the University of Virginia, Charlottesville VA. From their website:

Music encoding is now a prominent feature of various areas in musicology and music librarianship. The encoding of symbolic music data provides a foundation for a wide range of scholarship, and over the last several years, has garnered a great deal of attention in the digital humanities. This conference intends to provide an overview of the current state of data modeling, generation, and use, and aims to introduce new perspectives on topics in the fields of traditional and computational musicology, music librarianship, and scholarly editing, as well as in the broader area of digital humanities.

This conference aims to gather specialists in all the above areas, to discuss the current state of modeling, generation and use of music encoding, to exchange experiences, report on successful projects on major collections and composers, and to forge collaborations for future projects.

Although the above quote might imply that any form of encoding of music is dealt with, the conference actually focussed on the principles and implementations of the Music Encoding Initiative (MEI) format. The ultimate commendable goal of the MEI community is to “get the musical data out of the different silos” (to quote MEI founder Perry Roland). Actually, I am not sure whether I agree fully with this. Yes, working on reaching a common standard for musical encoding is needed. And yes, maybe MEI could be this standard. Furthermore musicology does need a large, high quality corpus of encoded music to do research on.

My objections lie in the area of the applications of an encoding standard like MEI. Currently it is used by several projects, the largest being the Detmold based Edirom project, but it lacks an easy to use editor for preparing music editions. The MEI Score Editor offers the best option, but since it is developed within the context of the German DARIAH-DE and TextGrid initiatives it is bounded to their technical requirements, not offering the best in usability and ease of use for musicologists, especially those who are less ‘technology minded’.

Another issue is the current scope of these implementations of MEI. In principle MEI – as a standard – can deal with all types of musical notation, including mensural notated music (a type of musical notation used from the late 13th century until 1600; see the article on notation in Oxford Music Online, §III, 3-4; if you have no institutional access, see Wikipedia). But the current implementations in fact only deal with so-called Common Music Notation (CMN).  Although there are some MEI related initiatives in the field of mensural notated music, tools for the production of scholarly editions of Early Music are not yet available.

The CMME project offers tools for editing and viewing mensural notated music of the 15th and 16th centuries. CMME was founded in 1999, is currently based at Utrecht University, published around 70 editions online and has a considerable user group. It uses an encoding format based on MusicXML instead of MEI though. So should we change the CMME software to handle MEI? So CMME works in ‘the same silo’ as the other MEI projects? I think the better alternative is to work on a conversion between the CMME-MusicXML and MEI. I see no objections in applications using their own proprietary format, as long as it is open and interoperable with other formats. We should at least keep all the tools which have proven their use in historical musicology, especially since this is not the most ‘tech savy’ community.

Creating interoperability between music encoding standards, while keeping in mind that musicologist need easy-to-use tools to do their research, is something we can certainly achieve in the coming years. We will indeed “forge collaborations for future projects“!

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