The Finale Copypocalypse 2: Mob Justice

Whelp, that was quick. This week, MakeMusic announced that no, they would not be including what was to be a flagship feature of the latest edition of Finale: the ability to apply optical character recognition to a PDF. The details, as always, at Sibelius Blog.

For some reason, any mention of the word “copyright” seems to end all reasonable discussion on a topic. I don’t know how we got to this point, but it’s alarmingly common. As soon as Famous Creator says the word “copyright,” their fans dutifully line up behind them. It’s instantly asymmetrical. MakeMusic can’t say “nope” to copyright, and anybody else siding with MakeMusic is easily branded a Free Culture hippie. I shared my thoughts on the matter last week.

I still believe that the vast majority of the loudest voices opposing music OCR in Finale fundamentally misunderstand the technology. It makes me both sad and angry that a fearful Internet mob can halt the distribution of a useful technology.[1] However, in a conversation with one of the leading anti-OCR composers[2] earlier today, I was assured that at least some of the agitators do understand the tech.

Still, I am a person of science, as much as a person who has no formal study of science after high school can be. I try as much as possible to construct opinions empirically. And, I contend that there is no evidence that music OCR has any significant impact on anybody’s income. Note that I’m using the present tense here. This isn’t a hypothetical. We can actually look at what people are doing with it now.

Having said all that, this thoughtful composer, whose music I value highly, reminded me of crucial detail. MakeMusic/Finale has a rather cozy deal with “the world’s largest educational music publisher” (just ask them) Alfred Music. Alfred does not want to get into any fights with composers and does not want to let people scan music to use with SmartScore that it could sell them a second or third or fourth copy to use with SmartScore.

So maybe, the bigger problem than technology misunderstandings, intellectual property norms, or social media mobs, is that the software companies that we rely on to develop the tools on which we build our careers, don’t need us nearly as much as we need them. There are lovely folks working on the teams developing Finale, Sibelius, and Dorico. And all of them have bosses at MakeMusic, Avid, and Steinberg, who are not likely to make decisions based solely—or even primarily—on what is best for the weirdo composers using their software.[3]


  1. As many have pointed out, this isn’t even new tech. It’s just new to MakeMusic. PhotoScore has been around for over a decade, and a lite version has shipped with Sibelius for many years. There are other standalone products as well.  ↩
  2. … who may or may not have recently won newspaper-tycoon-themed award …  ↩
  3. Before you tell me about your favorite unencumbered open source notation application, don’t do that. Thanks for reading the footnotes, though!  ↩

SN235: Your Aunt Will Love It

Between the New York Philharmonic Biennial and the Nørgård in New York festival, Danish composer Per Nørgård has gotten a lot of attention in the U.S. in the last couple of weeks. I missed posting this podcast episode here because I’m a forgetter. Take a listen to our conversation with two of the proprietors of the Nørgård in New York festival. If you can explain the Infinity Series to me using small words and visual aids, I would really appreciate it.

Please excuse my mental mixup of Dennis Johnson and Ben Johnston: similar names, but musical opposites.

When you’re done listening to the interview and laughing at my dumbness (thanks to the panel for not pointing it out in realtime!), listen to some Nørgård. I’m a big fan of the quartets.

SN236: A Moon Shaped Review

Radiohead’s new album A Moon Shaped Pool was released today on CD and digital. It had a limited release back in May, and my friends Nate and Sam are two of the biggest Radiohead nerds I know. We spent a whole hour talking about the album on this episode.

I did my best to moderate the fanboy panel.

The Finale Copypocalypse

Over the last few weeks, composer-pundits have been have been throwing a collective tantrum over a new feature announced in an upcoming release of MakeMusic’s Finale. The feature allows users to scan a score and import that into Finale.[1] Furthermore, users can import a PDF that has been previously scanned. This is the part that has everyone talking like MakeMusic has introduced a feature which will retroactively destroy all music you’ve ever created and possibly eat your cat. The outrage is primarily coming from John Mackey and Jennifer Higdon. I should say that I have immense respect for both of these individuals: they do fantastic work of making their scores readily available for perusal and purchase. I have often used this openness to study their works. However, they are doing so by distributing restricted PDFs that cannot be printed. Finale’s PDF import feature will be able to import these PDFs just like any other. Stated like that, the torches and pitchforks seem justified.

However, Philip Rothman offers a crucial, “turns out” rebuttal:

[Finale’s PDF import feature is] really a re-packaging of existing music OCR technology, which has existed for more than two decades. Just like any other document on the planet, if you can see it, it can be read and interpreted by OCR. It doesn’t matter if the document is a piece of paper, a print-restricted PDF that’s viewable on a computer screen, or an image on your phone.

I’ve been trying to come up with these words for a week now, and I’m glad Philip got there before me. The issue here is not the technology. I scan things from my phone all the time, sometimes from other screens. Streaming audio and video works the same way! Any time you’ve got encrypted or DRM-protected media, there’s necessarily a point where it is unencrypted for consumers’ eyes and ears. At that point, all bets are off, and there is literally no technological way to prevent it.

The worst possible outcome of this kerfuffle is that composers like Mackey and Higdon–not to mention major publishers like Boosey & Hawkes–remove or limit access to perusal scores on the Internet. This would be a completely understandable reaction, but would make us poorer as a music community to lose this resource.

At some point, you need to trust people to do the right thing. I can walk into a library, pull a score off the shelf, and do exactly the same thing that people are fretting about. Even without scanning, I could just input the notes into Finale and have a clean copy just like that. This would be possible with any perusal score, digital or paper.[2]

Earlier this year, Microsoft announced that they had created a machine intelligence called Tay that would chat with users and learn from them. Within hours, Tay started spouting off some pretty vile racist remarks. This was not because Microsoft engineers are Neo-Nazis (they aren’t). Rather, Tay was simply learning from the horrible racist remarks people were saying to her. Just like the PDF-scanning feature in Finale, the problem with Tay isn’t the technology. It’s people.

So to composers and publishers: keep your stuff right where it is. Put more stuff online. Don’t kill such a valuable resource because someone might abuse it. After all, we’re not talking about a Nirvana record on Napster. The market for these works are musicians and educators. We “get” the economics of the whole situation. We want you to keep writing more great stuff and distributing it online. Besides, I’m much more likely to plop down $100 for a piano/vocal score of Higdon’s new opera Cold Mountain if I can take a look at it first. I see this as a virtuous cycle between publishers/self-publishers and performers. Note that the cycle doesn’t include software developers. I would hate to see a technological development in Finale break the wonderful, direct composer-to-fan relationship the Internet has fostered.


  1. Yes, Sibelius has been doing this for a decade. If there was ever any sturm und drang over it, I never saw it. People are weird, right?  ↩
  2. Also, while this is probably only a temporary limitation, I’ve never had a score scan completely correctly the first time in Sibelius, which is using nearly identical technology. Usually, I find that unless it’s an exceptionally clean engraving with no mixed meters, tuplet rhythms, or other features of music written after 1860, it’s more trouble cleaning up than just entering notes the first time.  ↩

This is not a hot take.

I live in Orlando. It’s nearly 48 hours after one of the largest mass shootings in the United States happened here. Mercifully, I don’t know anyone involved. Or if I do, that horrific news has not yet reached me.

I’ve seen photos of awful things. Awful things in Colorado. Awful things in Riyadh. Awful things in Connecticut. Awful things in London. But this is the first time I’ve seen those photos and known the place. It’s the first time I’ve seen the TV news and known what is just out of frame and where the good parking is nearby. It feels different because of that.

I was at a concert last night, just a few hours after the shooting. I’m pretty sure there were press conferences being held at the same time. The concert was nice, but everyone seemed a little distracted. Maybe it was only me who was distracted.

This concert featured the obligatory Moment of Silence. I know that’s a thing people do. I assume people find it comforting, otherwise we’d stop doing it; but, I could only sit there and think about how I didn’t feel like I wanted to be calm.

I mostly wanted to shout expletives and punch Wayne LaPierre in the throat.

Writers of writers

In my most recent creative technology explorations, I’ve been really interested in autonomous software that can generate music or art. In reading about this stuff on the Web, I often find comments along the lines of “the computers will put the composers out of work.” In a fascinating post about neural-network-based machine intelligence writing prose and poetry, Ross Goodwin has the perfect response.

When we teach computers to write, the computers don’t replace us any more than pianos replace pianists—in a certain way, they become our pens, and we become more than writers. We become writers of writers.

Yes, please. I want to do that.

Since the above-linked post was written, Goodwin has written a new post linking to this delightfully insane film, shot from a screenplay written by his neural network algorithms.

(The writers I’m writing are much dumber than the ones Goodwin is writing, but it’s still fascinating and thrilling to me. Here’s an example of one of the better things my little guy made.)

Kadenze is my new home for learning about creative technology

Massive Open Online Courses (MOOCs) made a big splash a few years ago with the launch of Coursera. If you’ve not heard this wacky term, a MOOC is an online course that is usually free or cheap, and involves a nearly unlimited number of students to take a class simultaneously. I’ve read of Coursera courses that have had tens of thousands of students. This creates an active community, and a low-pressure learning environment. Coursera is a platform hosting college courses from major universities on a wide variety of topics.

Kadenze is a relatively new MOOC platform that focuses on creative technology. It was founded in part by professors at California Institute of the Arts and Princeton University (among others) who specialize in computer music. You can audit all of their classes for free, which allows you to watch lecture videos, read course materials, and participate in class discussions. To submit assignments and receive feedback, you can sign up for a premium account at $10/mo.

I’ve audited parts of four or five courses on Kadenze in the last year. The quality of the content and instruction is extremely high, and the topics are right up my alley. One small frustration is that there is no way to watch the videos offline. I often want to watch on my iPad while I’m in low-connectivity areas, and there’s currently no good way to do that.[1] Apart from that minor quibble, my experience has been great, and I would strongly urge anyone who has summer tech learning goals to check out their upcoming offerings, many of which focus on free, open-source software.

  • Introduction to Programming for Musicians and Digital Artists – This is a class by one of Kadenze’s founders, Ajay Kapur, on music programming language ChucK. The videos are a little hokey at times, but it’s a terrific starting class. One of these days, I’ll post a little about a project I’ve been working on in ChucK. It’s not quite ready for primetime just yet.
  • The Nature of Code – Dan Shiffman on creating visual programs in P5.js that mimic natural processes like flocking, schooling, and branching.
  • Programming Max: Structuring Interactive Software for Digital Arts – Not open yet, but I’m all about this. For those on team Pure Data, there’s a PD course scheduled for the end of this year with Sergi Jorda and the Notorious MSP himself.
  • Touring Modernism: From the French avant-garde to American Pop and Beyond – This one is a little bit not like the others, in that it’s a little more theoretical than applied, but the first unit of lecture videos that are available as I write this are stellar! Professor Lisa Wainwright of the School of the Art Institute of Chicago[2] is a really engaging lecturer, and she gets to use examples from right there at the Art Institute!

So if you’re like me and set unreasonable learning goals for the summer time, these courses are worth every penny of either the free or paid tiers. Kadenze is one of those rich resources that makes me want to quit all my jobs and responsibilities and just dive in to learning stuff really deeply and making wild and reckless creative decisions. If you’re making something with what you learn there, please share. I’d love to see.


  1. In fairness, this is not entirely Kadenze’s fault. While they provide the MOOC platform, they don’t own the content. Rather, they license it from the people and institutions who create it. I suppose this arrangement helps keep costs down, but I would definitely pay the $10/mo. if I could watch offline.  ↩
  2. …of Latter Day Saints, I suppose.  ↩

Support

This past Sunday’s #musochat, hosted by New Music Gathering, was focused on support for new projects. I’m trying to get better at deciding to take on new projects, not take on other projects, and stopping projects that have run their course. It made me think of this talk by composer Martin Bresnick. Some might think of this direct discussion of money as a little crass.[1] But lately I’ve been thinking of “support” in terms of how much time and energy I can devote while maintaining my ideal level of mental and physical health.

This is one of Chamber Music America’s First Tuesday sessions from March 2016. In it, Bresnick talks about how much a composer should charge for a commissioning fee on a new piece of music.

There are three parts to this: you the composer, the next part is the commissioner, and the third part is the work itself.

I read a nice suggestion a while back. If the response to a new project isn’t “Hell yes!”, it has to be “no.”


  1. I might argue that those people are being a little precious.  ↩