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What Open Source Can Do for Music Making


Portrait of Erich Grunewald
Erich Grunewald

Software Developer

Open source is popular because it’s free, abundant, extensible and, well, useful. But an underrated aspect of open source is its utility for learning. If you have access to the insides of a thing – in the case of software, the code – then you can learn from it, experiment with it and understand how to build something like it. And that’s true for more products than just software. This blog post looks at one of those other products: open source music. But before we get there, let’s back up a bit …

In the early days of us, mothers and fathers would teach their children to sing, and perhaps a skilled musician in the village or nomadic community would teach the young of that community to play the flute or drums or lyre. In that way playing, improvising and composing skills, which I imagine were not as separate then as they are now, were passed on and developed from one generation to the next.

Some of those nomads and villagers built cities and invented reading and writing. They also realised that they could make their compositions immortal by writing them down in musical notation. The oldest fairly complete composition known, the Hurrian Hymn to Nikkal, was carved into a cuneiform tablet in the Amorite-Canaanite city of Ugarit around 1400 BCE. In monastic Europe, abbots and the abbesses discovered that they could share the best of what Christendom had to offer in this way, and so they set to writing and copying musical manuscripts.

It’s not clear to me when sheet music also became an important tool for learning how to compose, but I think learning is unlikely to have been a driving force in its development. The Wikipedia article for sheet music hardly even mentions its usefulness for learning. The driving forces were probably preserving music for posterity and standardising the Church liturgy. But by the time we get to the 19th century (the printing press having long since been invented), we find countless stories of composers intensely studying the scores of one or another of their heroes. Anton Bruckner, for example, studied “Mozart, Beethoven, Cherubini, Schubert, Berlioz, Mendelssohn, Schumann, Liszt, Brahms and Wagner [...] Bruckner's pupil Friedrich Eckstein reports that the composer's apartment near the Schottenring in the Hessgasse was cluttered with ‘mountains of books, scores and music’ piled ‘so high that only a Hercules could move them’”1. Recall Stravinsky: “A good composer does not imitate; he steals.”

Parallel to this, music teaching gradually turned into a real profession. Composers like Sweelinck, Rameau, Rimsky-Korsakov, Hindemith and Schönberg and many others taught and wrote books and treatises about music theory and composition. In fact, it’s very difficult to find composers before the 20th century who made ends meet through the sale of compositions. Instead they were monks or nuns, teachers, tutors, directors of music for the monarchy or the nobility, or they supported themselves via patronage, concert income or inheritance.

So we see historical composers benefitting from teacher-student relationships, treatises written by major composers and sheet music available for studying. This all changed in the 20th century. The chief reason for the change was recording technology, which allowed music makers to profit from the sales of recordings and reduced demand for live performance and hence also for sheet music. And none of this was a conscious decision – all of this happened as if naturally.

Put in another way, music used to arrive to listeners via a two-step process: (1) draw up a set of performance instructions (the sheet music), and (2) execute those instructions to create sound. In this way it is similar to architecture and software. Because it was no more conceivable to distribute music as sound then than it was to move a standing building, you had to distribute it as it was in the intermediate step, as instructions.

When a producer today makes music, the process may look more like this: (1) draw up a set of instructions (DAW projects, MIDI tracks, samples, synth and effect parameters and so on), (2) export to another set of instructions (an audio file), and (3) execute those instructions to actually produce sound waves. The distributed artefacts are now one step removed from those produced in the creative act. Ones and zeroes are not useful objects of musical study.

Instead, what aspiring music makers have today are in the main YouTube tutorials, blog posts and recordings of the music they admire. It’s a very slow process, sometimes hopeless, of trial and error to figure out how a song or a part of a song was made just from listening to it. It’s not unlike trying to reverse-engineer a piece of software. How much easier would it be if you had access to the notes (be it as sheet music or as MIDI), the DAW project file, samples used, effect and instrument parameters and so on? In other words, if the music and its instructions had been open-sourced by their maker? But there is not much of that today, so we are left fumbling about in the dark.

Sheet music was obsolesced by recordings, the supply of which is no longer limited by the costs of production, but instead has to be restricted via streaming services, digital rights management and crackdowns on illegal file-sharing, in other words artificially. The marginal cost of producing a digital copy of a song is near zero. But the marginal cost of producing a copy of a DAW project file, a sample pack or a software plugin – in other words of the “internals” of digitally created music – is also near zero.2 This is exciting and promising. It is also what has made the open source movement possible.

Ultimately, every music maker must decide for themselves how much or how little effort to spend on knowledge sharing. Some have no interest in it, and that’s fine. I suspect many are even a little bit embarrassed of the simple tricks they use to achieve this or that sound. But those who do want to teach and share their knowledge ought to consider releasing their creations, tools and processes under open source licenses.

Cover image: Shepherd and Shepherdess Making Music(https://www.metmuseum.org/art/collection/search/468721), licensed under CC0 1.0.

1: Jackson, Timothy. “Bruckner's 'Oktaven'.” Music & Letters, vol. 78, no. 3, 1997, pp. 391–409. JSTOR, www.jstor.org/stable/737427.
2: Every year at Futurice we release an open-licensed compilation album of employee-made music on our house label, Chilicorn Records. Because the music is open source, Futurice actually pays us for time spent via the Spice program for open source and social impact. For my contribution to the 2018 compilation, a Prelude and Fugue of questionable quality, I created a GitHub repository containing, among other things, the sheet music, the Ableton Live project, MIDI files, recorded parts and the final track; I also wrote a blog post about it. Here is my contribution to this year’s album (to be released later this summer).

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