New technology makes the history of great music open to all - and makes it easier to turn pages

Borromeo String Quartet violinist Nicholas Kitchen expands on his thoughts about the intersection of classical music and emerging technology.

Do you think it is inevitable that printed music will go away or perhaps become a quaint old rarity?


Let me consider a slightly different question as a prelude to answering the main question: What are the benefits reading music from PDF files instead of paper? Let's just consider that basically most everyone on earth has or is trying to get a computer, tablet, or smartphone, as well as access to the internet. Even in countries that are very poor, it is clear to individuals that the computer is the first tool that has to be acquired in any development strategy for an individual or a group (I have first-hand knowledge of this from my work in Haiti).

Once you have a computer and even slow internet access, just with one website, [for the The International Music Score Library Project or IMSLP], you can within a few moments download really any piece in most of the history of Western music for free (IMSLP is very logically asking for some financial help now as well). You can play it immediately and with access to a page-turning pedal. And keep in mind that even the most ancient USB keyboard can be put on the floor, and by pressing the space bar with your foot, you have a page-turning pedal. So, if you wish, you can play through the entire full score of Don Giovanni without one stop. And then perhaps you would like to play through Die Meistersinger? A few more minutes and your 3.5 hours of reading will begin. Or perhaps Purcell. Maybe all the Beethoven piano sonatas.

Consider hypothetically that a philanthropist wants to create a music education library in every country of the world that just has the contents printed out of what is on IMSLP. Billions and billions of pieces of paper would be necessary, and transport mechanisms, and duplicates, etc. But make it PDF music, and in fact what exists right this moment is a situation where every spot on the globe that has even a moderate internet connection has exactly this library, without one piece of paper being printed.

And of course, IMSLP does not just have printed editions; it has priceless manuscripts that have been thankfully guarded in libraries all over the world. One scanning process, and a generous attitude of the library, and everyone on earth can look at all the Beethoven Razumovsky quartet manuscripts or hundreds of others, a process that I can tell you personally has yielded one happy shock after the other to see the exquisite details of information that Beethoven puts only in the manuscripts (they do not make it to printed music).

C.P.E. Bach mentions the Bogen-clavier or Geigenclavier, a keyboard instrument with strings that are "bowed" by turning wheels. A short bit of downloading, and you can see that beautiful illustration of this instrument and its workings by Praetorius, all PDF files.

So we are seeing a situation where unprecedented depth of specific source material is meeting with incredible ease of searching in a setting where, with some very simple hardware - internet, IMSLP, PDF reader, screen, page turner, you can bring this music (any music) to your fingertips and people's hearing in moments.

I also find it interesting that the process we are describing here is for physical playing of music, not downloading of recordings. I am very excited about a world where people play music on vibrating musical instruments and share it physically. How ironic that the computer makes this easier to explore freely. Recordings are interesting, irreplaceable historical records, but playing music person to person is much more important, and this is what is being made easier by the chain of resources I am describing. Further, by making it easy to view manuscripts, you are entering into the moment when the actual physical creation of the music happened - the writing desk where Beethoven searched for the next phrase of the 9th Symphony, or the Seventh Violin Sonata or the "Waldstein" Sonata (all manuscripts available on IMSLP).

So considering music-playing using IMSLP, there are resources going into maintaining the internet, and into maintaining IMSLP, and you must have electricity to at least recharge the battery of what you are reading from. But consider that resource footprint compared to the behemoth of paper music publishing with all its distribution and production networks. The difference is astounding. So, if all music was read electronically, one of the large consuming activities for paper would be gone. That is a lot of trees!

Of course, you can say, "What about all the people employed by music publishing?" Well, what if the same money went into hiring teachers, so each player could increase their skills? It is also a healthy economy.

And the layout for concerts can change quite radically. There are many challenges of lighting music, and musicians are often very uncomfortable with the environment as it relates to being able to see their paper music clearly. When each performer has an illuminated screen where they are in control of the zoom, you have radically altered this situation and also created a new set of choices about how environments can be constructed where music is being played. Musicians can easily play in a completely dark room if this is desirable. A theater could always do this with stand lights, but in this case each individual is taking care of themselves in any location they choose with a machine they use every day. Furthermore, screens can be wired so that any number of screens can show the same music, mark the same music, study the same music.

And I can tell you an amusing event that that happened under a big tent made for a benefit concert. We played a movement of Tchaikovsky's Souvenir de Florence and it turned out that three musicians had laptops and three musicians had stands, paper music, and clothespins. All the pinning was done, and we started, and perhaps this exciting music conjured the wind god. A strong current started across the playing area. This could have definitely been a viable entry for the one of the Funniest Videos TV shows. After a hilarious breakdown, we finished reading two players to each computer, possible because those reading from computers were reading from the full score.

Also, publishers for a long time have either been in the group that is considerate of where musicians have to turn the page, or the group that is oblivious where the musician has to turn the page. Quartet movements like the Bartók 5 last movement or Schubert G Major last movement are notorious for being impossible for page turns. Musicians take a whole variety of arts and crafts approaches as their first performance of these works approaches, and some have the gumption to keep a daredevil page turn in their plan. This can create spectacular stand-toppling disasters if it is a bad day. Turning pages with a pedal means all of these issues are gone, and though it still might be a little nicer if a page turn is not in the exact middle of your most difficult passage, even if it is, you can do it.

Studying music is where these new possibilities start to form a positive feedback loop. And speaking as a teacher, the potential here for learning is astounding.

As I learned in conservatory, it was unquestioned that you were adding something of great value by studying the score in addition to practicing your part. At the time this meant two investments of time: the practice session and the study session. There also might be class study of a score, of course, but this would likely not be playing - probably listening to a recording and with a printed handout (there goes 300 pages of paper, mostly discarded after the class).

Well, actually the only reason that I sought out playing from the computer is that when I saw my pianist colleague Meng-Chieh Liu playing with a page-turning pedal in 2006, I realized that this was the solution for always reading from the full score. And starting in December 2006 that is what I have done. I might still spend some extra solitary time studying the score, but for the most part the study of the score and the practice of the piece are a single process. I am learning every detail of the other parts as I learn my own, and I can say it does astound me how every visit to the score yields a new observation (a little like watching a well-loved movie another time). When a group is rehearsing all from the score, this process feeds itself. You start to have a communal study momentum. As each one of you absorbs the information just observed by your colleague, you see yet another level of information, and as you share this it will probably spark yet another observation. In each case every person is seeing every element involved by seeing the full score. When players use a part showing just what they play, they often have a score to use in discussion, but there is a whole new level of intensity and efficiency in the scenario where every member reads the full score directly and everyone is seeing all the information all the time. This also has a beautiful effect of making it feel less like anyone "owns" a certain point of view, and alternate options for interpretations are easy to keep track of when everyone is seeing everything.

So, these are some of the advantages of reading from PDF files, and particularly of reading from PDF files of the full score, and, as a bonus, manuscripts and primary sources.

But back to the original question: "Do you think it is inevitable that printed music will go away or perhaps become a quaint old rarity?"

I don't know. I am amazed at the range of reactions to new methods. I have seen adopters who take it on right away and puzzle through the new skills one needs with determination. You do have to learn the technique of using your foot, and the handling of PDF files. I have seen those who think it is a great idea - but not for them. I have seen those that just wish to continue exactly what they are used to doing, and I have seen those who are actually hostile to any method of using computers in connection with reading music. Overall, the inertia against change is enormous. This is no surprise. In what field is this not the case?

One logic I find interesting to bring up. There is a point of view that says that the process of playing off of parts where you only see what you yourself play heightens the process of just "feeling" what the other parts are doing and the way they interact with you. It is a logic where the element of blindness is positive in increasing dependence and sensitivity. There is something to this for sure, but having given it a lot of thought I think that my own preference is to use playing sometimes from memory to actually intensify the positive element that comes from blind interaction. On balance, I find the benefits of group communication with full knowledge of each other to be amazingly powerful, and I think adding to this the cultivation of the same level of sensitivity of the blind setup seems to be trying to make the best of both worlds.

Can you think of anything lost in this digital transition - human, emotional, poetical, symbolic (of roots or tradition), or even purely logistical?


There are a few rare occasions where I have played from a truly beautifully printed piece of music, a work of art. But most editions are not in this category. There are nice editions and plenty that are not really nice at all. When one steps into digital editions I can enjoy the exquisitely crafted hand-printing of C.P.E. Bach in his Probestücke, or countless other gorgeous engravings from past centuries. So, on balance, I feel computers open up much more access to artistic printing. And when one works with PDFs of manuscripts, you are literally in contact with the workshops of the greatest musicians in our history, and their personalities positively glow on every page. So there is a lot gained with this, and there is no limit to the number of people who can enjoy every detail of these files.

Computers give immediate access to a huge rich library, but this material has to be played physically. I think this is a very healthy type of access which encourages us to interact with the music physically by turning it into playing.

My personal reading device is rather large, a laptop, but now that the large iPad has come out I think electronic scores can easily match the lean profile of the wire stands with paper music, so I am really having a hard time coming up with features of the paper music which are lost with the change to electronic files. I only see greater possibilities, and I see greater access to the more poetic and inspiring artifacts of music creation in the form of beautiful printing of the past, as well as primary sources like manuscripts.