Open Source for Sacred Music Infrastructure

In exploring the benefits of Open Source Sacred Music, the only reasonable model for comparison is, of course, Open Source software. While the analogy breaks down at some critical points (music is content, while software is a tool), I believe there is still much to be learned from the Open Source software movement, particularly in terms of commercial business practice and community involvement.

That being said, this comparison tends to draw some immediate criticism along the lines of "most people don't really use Open Source software." The relative market-share of Open Office vs. MS Office, Linux vs. Windows and Mac, or LilyPond vs. Finale and Sibelius are shown as examples proving that Open Source is inconsequential- buggy software used by people who can't afford the "real thing."

Regardless of your views on Intellectual Property, or how much legitimate analogy you see between software and music, the idea that Open Source is relatively inconsequential in the world of software is simply inaccurate, a gross misunderstanding of the Open Source software ecology.

While there are a handful of moderately-successful consumer-oriented Open Source projects (Open Office, for example), the real success of Open Source has been among developers and infrastructure. By this I don't just mean that computer geeks are more willing to put up with bugs and glitches and uncompiled source code (although that's true, they are). What I mean is that Open Source software has become the de facto "standard" for the infrastructure that runs modern computing and development.

The vast majority of websites are run on servers with an Open Source operating system (Linux). The web-server software running on most of those machines is also Open Source (Apache). The database software running the vast majority of dynamic websites is Open Source (MySQL). The most popular languages, development tools, frameworks, content management systems and testing suites are all Open Source. Even the most closed-down, vendor-controlled marketplace ever conceived, the iOS App Store, has been infiltrated by Open Source development tools, thanks to the PhoneGap project, which allows developers to write native iOS apps using the most common and popular (and Open Source) web development languages and tool sets. (Not to mention that fact that most Apps communicate with a web server during operation, which is most likely running on Open Source software.)

So what? What parallel might be drawn between this and the needs/realities of the Sacred Music world?

While I am specifically NOT saying that Open Source Sacred Music has no consumer-oriented application (it does, and the handful of Open or almost-Open projects existing are all consumer-oriented), I would suggest that the biggest need for Open Source Sacred Music (tools and content) are within what one might call "infrastructure." That is, projects with output that might be used in secondary products and projects with a definite consumer orientation.

For example, an Open Source collection of hymns might form the basis for a pew hymnal. We see this sort of thing already (the use of as a central reference point for CCW's Vatican II Hymnal), but the individual projects tend to be narrowly focused, designed or implemented in a way that does not lend itself to re-use. For example, the collection of Public Domain English Hymns hosted by CMAA (the Parish Book of English Hymns) is a nice collection for reference, but anyone wishing to use those hymns in their own publication would almost certainly need to re-engrave them. This continuous need to recreate work already done puts a drag on new development, sapping energy that could be better spent on other aspects of Sacred Music promotion.

The solution, in most cases, is to adopt the tools and practices of Open Source software development. If the PBEH, for example, had been notated in an Open format (LilyPond, MusicXML, ABC or other) and made available in a version controlled source code repository (such as GitHub), it would be possible for other projects to incorporate that work into their own products.

That is: Many people have already come to terms with the idea that they should ALLOW other people to use things. Now we need to start ENABLING them to do so.

But what types of infrastructure does Sacred Music need? Here are a handful of specific ideas. For each one, imagine the ability to easily sift through details, programatically include source code in other projects, mathematically analyse musical content, collaborate on extensions and translations easily, adjust styling consistently with a few changes in one place. Imagine what would be possible with truly Open Source repositories of the following:

  • Complete GABC (Gregorio) of the Graduale Romanum.
  • Clean, well-formed LilyPond files of Public Domain hymn tunes.
  • GABC version of every hymn and chant in the Parish Book of Chant.
  • Metered, well-rhymed, modern(ish) English translations of every strophic hymn from the Divine Office.
  • The entire Latin Psalter, pointed for chanting, in a form (JSON? XML?) that would allow programatic extraction and display in any style.
  • The same, with the Anglican Psalter (Coverdale) or another Public Domain English Psalter approved for liturgical use.
  • A large body of Anglican chant tones, which can be programatically inserted in other projects without having to reconfigure or re-engrave to suit the style of the receiving publication.
  • The entire contents of the Catholic Choir Book, notated in a standard format, includable in other publications or as single editions, without the publisher having to re-engrave for style reasons.

This is just a handful of ideas off the top of my head, with some additional thought about how and why these projects could be useful. But the real benefit of Open Source, of the free sharing of informaiton and tools, is that no one person can conceive of the things that are possible. An easy-to-access media database with performance examples of every chant in the Gradual? An algorhthmic analysis of the melodic structure of Office hymnody? A simple web-service that allows you to print Anglican Chant tones with Psalm verse without the user need to do any formatting? A drag-and-drop tool for assembly programs? Hard-bound Vulgate-Coverdale side-by-side psalters for devotional and study use? A tool that finds liturgical texts based on grammar or vocabulary, for use by Latin-language students?

Who knows?

Originally appeared at Music for Sunday on 03 February 2013.
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