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Assignment: Impossible

Assignment: Impossible

Exploring the area between the unknown and the impossible.

A Modest Proposal: Google Autopiano

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.

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

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