MIDI vs. MusicXML

This evening, I was offered a promo code to an app that functions as a MIDI workstation. I declined the offer, mainly because I already own the app (i.e. I had already purchased it). I never wrote about the app because I feel that MIDI is an outdated standard for music education. I believe that MusicXML is the proper standard for music education.

You might disagree with that statement. If you do, and you’d be willing to let me post your contrary opinion, please send me an e-mail (the e-mail address is on the right sidebar).

MIDI is a way to allow a computer to both read data from an external instrument, as well as to send data to external instruments. MIDI represents the basis of all sequencers and notation products that are on the market. The “MIDI cable” has become somewhat of a dinosaur, replaced by USB connections, and external MIDI boxes have been replaced by the Core MIDI functionality of operating systems (including the iPad). So MIDI is still used–but not in the direct way it was in the past.

Think about the MIDI needs of an educator…most of the time we’ll fall back on a traditional notation package to act as a MIDI controller or sequencer, utilizing sounds directly from the computer rather than external instruments. Music educators are often aided by the use of notation (versus just playing something into the computer), and MIDI often becomes the headache connected to the process of writing music. For example, you want use Finale by playing in notes, but then need to set up the keyboard connection. At the same time, you want what you are playing to sound through your computer and not the keyboard, so you find yourself fiddling with MIDI connections and setup options. Or, you find a song that is available in a MIDI format on the net, and with hopes of saving yourself hours of working with Finale or Sibelius, you import it into your notation package. To your dismay, the original MIDI file is a mess, barely legible and full of errors from instrumentation all the way to time signatures and key signatures. And you will not be able to import any printed diacritical markings, lyrics, or text.

Herein lies the power of MusicXML. Write a song for any instrumentation group, export to MusicXML, and import into any other notation app, maintaining all of your original score elements. Granted, there are still issues (in part connected to the app or program used to write or read the MusicXML file) with MusicXML. But import/export with notation accuracy is a world of hurt with MIDI and much improved with MusicXML. It is so much improved that I wish an international rule would be created which would only allow Finale, Sibelius, and MuseScore to save their files as MusicXML files, period.

The power of the iPad and core MIDI is the invisible nature of MIDI. If you plug your keyboard (via USB through the camera connection kit), and it works (ours do not–Keystation 49i–very frustrating), it just works. There are no settings to mess around with. This is not true of the PCs and Macs I have worked with in the past. A number of apps take advantage of that core MIDI feature (see the iOS Musician blog for more information on those apps), and this really points the way for the future of iOS apps and mobile music. Granted, all the apps still have their limitations compared to their desktop versions or brethren–but I dare say that today’s iPad apps can do a far better job of notating and playing music than desktop versions could when they were originally released (the exception might be the Notion desktop app which is still relatively new to the notation industry).

Again, I’m approaching this from the angle of music education. Music performance, particularly music with electronic instruments (synthesizers, drums, etc.) has a far different use for MIDI. As an example, I think about unrealBook (iPad music reader) and its ability to control some MIDI features. That feature isn’t intended for me as a music educator, it is intended for performers in the electronic music. MIDI has a place, and is still crucial. But in terms of music education, the best place for MIDI is hidden, and for MusicXML to be the standard that we utilize.


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