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Music Notation: Preferred Preservation Formats for Digital Scores

Composers and arrangers now create scores using a wide variety of music notation software programs. This guide explores preferred formats for exchange and long-term preservation of these scores in order to assure their access into the future.

Introduction

Leonard Bernstein, half-length portrait, facing right, seated at piano, making annotations to musical score, 1955.
Al Ravenna, photographer. Leonard Bernstein, half-length portrait, facing right, seated at piano, making annotations to musical score. 1955. Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division.

Composers and arrangers, worst case scenario: your computer hard drive gives out right now. Are your digital scores stored elsewhere? If so, how would you access them? If not, what could have been done to prevent their loss?

How will you—and others—access your digital scores for performance and study in one year? Ten years? Fifty? Will the software companies you rely on (e.g. Finale, Musescore, Sibelius) still support their software?

File Formats

This guide provides information about file formats for digital notated music that will help you, archivists, researchers, and performers preserve and access your work in the coming decades. The file formats are MusicXML, the Music Encoding Initiative (MEI) schema, and PDF/A. Recommended formats were vetted for ease of preservation, sustainability, and projected future accessibility by the Library of Congress.

Navigating This Guide

Each format has its own page within this guide that contains information in the form of a table. Each table contains a brief definition of the format, its advantages and limitations, a brief explanation of how to save or export files into the format, and links to further resources. Understanding the advantages and limitations of each format will help you decide which format is best for your work.

After reading each table, explore the capability of your music software to export files in these formats. If you are considering donating your digital work to an archive or library, these institutions may not have the music software to open and export native default formats, much less export them into MusicXML, MEI, or PDF/A. While the archive or library would be able to preserve the file, its use (and therefore the time, labor, and server space needed for preservation) is hampered by its inaccessibility. Saving files in the recommended formats rather than the native format ensures that the files can be opened in other software, thereby increasing their accessibility and research potential.

Resources

Preserving digital files is an iterative cycle that requires minimal, regular attention. The Digital Preservation Practices page contains steps you can take that will increase the longevity of digital files and avoid the “worst case scenario."

The definitions of bold words are located on the Glossary page.

The Resources section of this guide contains links to websites and Library of Congress web pages for all three formats and professional organizations for digital preservation and standardization. For those curious about digital preservation and the intersection of born-digital items with technology, the Resources page also contains links to the Library of Congress’s blog The Signal and its numerous posts about digital preservation and LC Labs, whose staff implement the Library’s digital strategy through a variety of collaborative projects and initiatives.

Preserving digital notated music is integral to the preservation of cultural heritage—and that includes yours!