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Assignment: Impossible

Assignment: Impossible


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A Modest Proposal: Google Autopiano


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In the series “A Modest Proposal,” my colleagues and I will propose inventions and projects that I think are eminently doable and would love made real.

So last month Google unveiled What’s-the-Score, a project funded by a Google award where Oxford’s main research library digitized a set of 4,000 popular piano pieces from the mid-Victorian period and made it available online. By visiting the Web site, “citizen librarians” can describe the scores, and link to audio or video recordings.

That’s neat. Unfortunately, I can’t read music, and so the qualities of this music will be mostly lost on me. But what, I wonder, if there was a way for Google to automatically play the music out loud for my listening pleasure?

You’d feed what I call Google Autopiano a piece of online sheet music, and it’d play it out loud for you, just like a player piano. You can change the instrument you use to play the music like you can on an electronic keyboard, so it can play harpsichord, guitar, flute, and so on.

In many ways, this is like Google Translate. You’re taking a piece of text that might not be understood by many people and translating it to a version anyone can understand.

The main obstacle would be what I think is a lack of standard electronic sheet music formats. Still, there certainly is software that can scan and render sheet music into digitally playable forms. If Google can scan books en masse and make them readable to the general public, it’d be interesting if a Google sheet music project could scan volumes of sheet music and make songs that might have been neglected for centuries available to new listeners.

You can email me regarding A Modest Proposal at toohardforscience@gmail.com.

Charles Q. Choi About the Author: Charles Q. Choi is a frequent contributor to Scientific American. His work has also appeared in The New York Times, Science, Nature, Wired, and LiveScience, among others. In his spare time, he has traveled to all seven continents. Follow on Twitter @cqchoi.

The views expressed are those of the author and are not necessarily those of Scientific American.





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  1. 1. Nexcerpt 2:02 pm 06/1/2012

    The tool is already available in many forms:
    http://www.neuratron.com/photoscore.htm
    http://www.musitek.com/midiedition.html
    http://www.sibelius.com/products/photoscore/midi.html

    Ahh… all in one place, and more:
    http://www.music-notation.info/en/compmus/omr.html

    Link to this
  2. 2. dudleybrooks 2:41 pm 06/1/2012

    I’m unclear what it is that you think does not already exist. The standard music notation programs such as Sibelius and Finale have the ability to process input from OCR, and the musicXML description language mentioned in your link “software that can scan and render sheet music into digitally playable forms” is the “common electronic sheet music format”.

    I’m also unclear why you titled this article “A Modest Proposal”. Ever since the article of the same name by Swift, that title is a code word for an outrageously exaggerated and ironic satire.

    Link to this
  3. 3. dudleybrooks 2:42 pm 06/1/2012

    P.S. I meant to say “process input from OCR and play it back”.

    Link to this
  4. 4. dudleybrooks 2:57 pm 06/1/2012

    Ah, my apologies, I understand. You mean that someone should do it en masse and put it online. Yes, this would be a good idea, and, given how easy it would be, it is a *truly* modest proposal.

    Link to this

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