Serious or “classical” music has brought me great joy throughout my life. I have sung in choruses since childhood, and in operas for twenty years. I’m not a skilled musician. But being a participant makes the beauty and value of our shared musical heritage vividly alive. The efforts of musicians world-wide, amateur and pro, great and small, are what lets us pass the heritage on to future generations.

The information age is transforming our lives, sector by sector. Business, science, entertainment, communication. We have SMS and emails to help us communicate. We have spell-checkers and auto-correct help us write. We have web terminals in our pockets that let us read the best of the old books and the freshest of the newest microblogs. We have a huge range of recordings and videos for playback on demand.

Yet in all of this, the practice of music is in some ways stuck in the 1500’s — or, at best, the 19th century. When we start to sing, we pull out printed paper booklets more often than we pull out tablet screens. Rehearsals are bogged down because different people have different editions of the same musical work, with different page numbers. Wrong notes, or missing accidentals, in 50-year-old scores are uncorrected. Music directors lose rehearsal time to dictating cuts, assigning this lines to the tenor 1s and that to the tenor 2s, telling us on where to breathe and what bowing to use. And for the grand “Messiah” sing-along, a chorus must haul out hundreds of excess copies of chorus scores, distribute them to the audience, and then, hardest of all, collect them all back at the end.

The information age has provided us tools to solve these problems much more simply, for text and photos at least. We have word-processor files and photo-editors, which let us make corrections. We take for granted being able to re-typeset the modified text into a beautifully laid-out document, with our choice of typefaces. We can cast the documents into PDF files, and send them to their destinations. If there are errors, or tweaks specific to our project, it’s no problem to make a quick modification and redo the layout. If we want everyone in the room to read something, we can have them load it on a web page using their mobile device.

It is time that we do the same thing with music. It is time that it become routine for music scores to be handled in a revisable, reusable, high-quality digital form. Let’s call them “digiscores”. We should be able to make minor corrections. We should have the music equivalent of ebook readers at our disposal. We should be able to distribute scores electronically as conveniently as we distribute ebooks or emails.

Much of the great works of serious music date from the 19th century or earlier. They have long since entered the public domain. They are our shared heritage, part of our cultural soup. They should be freely available to everyone to mash-up and create with. But the notes of Verdi and Mozart are trapped in printed form, in books that are hard to obtain, or expensive due to the high overhead of low sales volumes. Publishers layer a new libretto translation on top of the public domain notes, and put a “do not photocopy” on the combination. A secondary school music teacher cannot pull Mozart from the cultural soup to use for the choir, because the packaging is obstructed by unnecessary copyright.

What we need are the public domain music scores, in revisable, reusable, high quality “digiscore” form, available as public domain digital files. In this form, they can be hosted cheaply, distributed for free, and used by everyone from the top symphonies, to the school music teachers, to the music-lovers exploring on their own.

Many talented people are innovating in this space. Many pieces are available. The Internet Music Score Library Project (IMSLP), aka the Petrucci Music Library, is making scanned images of public domain music scores freely available by the hundreds of thousands — but they are not revisable “digiscores”. There is music recognition computer software like Audiveris, SmartScan, and many others — but their output needs proofreading and correcting by humans before it is a usable “digiscore”. Project Gutenberg has proved the model of providing revisable digital versions of public domain works — but for texts, not music. The Project Gutenberg Distributed Proofreading project has a powerful structure for turning computer-generated drafts into final form — but they too have more traction for texts than for music. The Musopen project is commissioning quality recordings of a few of these works — but a recording of someone else’s performance is not what a chorus needs to make its own performance. MusicXML provides a promising foundation for a digiscore format — but a format is not a corpus. Musescore, Lilypond, Sibelius, Finale, and other tools put music entry and notation in the hands of a wider and wider audience — but we need a wider and wider group to use those tools. The Internet Archive is willing and able to host and distribute freely-available content — but someone has to provide the content.

There is a need for initiatives to harness the good will of music lovers, to equip them with tools and social structures, and help them turn public-domain music scores (and scans of scores) into public-domain digiscores, for free public use and re-use. I seek to contribute my energy to forming one such initiative. I will communicate more in the future. For now, this is my direction and my purpose.

If this vision excites you, please let me know in the comments below. (Later, there will be an announcement email list to join, and a web site at which to register, and so on.) There is a lot of work to do, and with many volunteers in an effective social structure, great results are possible. Wikipedia has shown us that. I would love to have your help.