An argument for GNU Lilypond and the openArbanProject

What is the openArbanProject?

I recently began working a new project that I have named the openArbanProject. Strange name, right? Well this way of naming things is a reference to something called camel case, which is a naming convention often used by computer programmers… why I’d do that will become obvious soon.
The openArbanProject has an initial goal of recreating Jean Baptiste Arban’s Cornet Method in a format that is easy to read, edit and share; and that is also legal to do so.

Being free is not about your money

There are already public domain copies of the Arban Method in existence (published in 1879 and 1893 respectively), but they are pretty poorly typeset and low resolution. As a result there are a lot of people who share pirated copies of the various editions of the book online that are not public domain. Even if you have a pirated copy that is nice to read on your tablet or computer, you still don’t have the means to make your own version of exercises or the legal right to do so. With the openArban book you will be supplied with both readable PDF files and the lilypond code to easily make edits that you have the right to distribute and even sell if you wish.
Alongside the openArban book any other public domain music can be created and shared in this way including but not limited to classical concerti, Clarke’s Technical Studies, or anything you can imagine. As a proof of concept and educational resource, the Trumpet Concerto in E-flat by Haydn is available for you to download now to use as you wish.

Why Lilypond?

I imagine that the next question people would ask about this project is why I’ve chosen to use GNU Lilypond for this project. Isn’t that more work than necessary? Here are my reasons:

Looks are important

First of all I chose to learn to write using Lilypond because I wanted an easier way to consistently typeset music for my eBooks. As with any kind of document preparation language (a more famous example being LaTex), if you type something in the same way then it’ll be presented in the same way every time. This means that you could set global rules for a score, piece or book and making adjustments to those rules will automatically restyle the entire work. This is something that is not possible in Sibelius, Finale, Dorico or MuseScore and, because of their nature as a WYSIWYG editor, never will be. I’ve been using Sibelius since it first came out on the Acorn Archimedes computer in the 1990s and even wrote a course for learning to use it when I was at music college in 2001. It’s not through lack of experience that I decided to change. I still use Sibelius for arrangement work and will go into more detail about that soon.

Low barrier to entry

I’m a fan of learning. Not just because I’m a teacher, but because I’m aware that without learning new skills we cannot evolve as people. We live in a world that is changing at a faster rate than people can learn and developing your niches keep you relevant. Spending years studying and learning about Jerome Callet’s trumpet methods have demonstrated this to me perfectly. I have a broader understanding of my instrument than I did when I graduated and on top of that I’ve written books and taught people from all over the world. None of this would have been possible if I had decided to stop learning at some point in the past.

Learning Lilypond can be quite a steep learning curve in the beginning but in a few hours I was happily typing out Arban’s book with ease. Adding details and edits to appearance are things I’ve picked up on a case-by-case basis and the more I learn the more I want to know. Lilypond has very extensive documentation and a vibrant community of users so if there’s something I can’t figure out myself then the answer isn’t far away.

I’ve been using a specialist piece of free software called Frescobaldi to create my scores. It helps with my coding by making it easier to read, rendering the score in real time and including a whole bunch of shortcuts for discovering how to add basic details to the score, transposing (including some very complex options) and more. I have made a demonstration video that is linked at the bottom of the article.

If you don’t wish to use this software then anyone with a basic text editor can write Lilypond scores. I could even write scores on my mobile phone at a bus stop and then compile them when I get home. Basically anybody can learn this skill at absolutely no cost, which is empowering.

The scourge of vendor lock-in

Vendor lock-in is something that affects almost everybody in the modern world. Most people aren’t even aware of it but they will have experienced it at some point and brushed it off as normal, accepting the fact of being controlled by a large company as just the way things are, or a cost of doing business. This is something that affects every single aspect of technology but I’ll try to stay on topic here and give you an example relevant to my day-to-day work as a professional musician.

Vendor lock-in, in simple terms, is what happens when you are reliant on a service provided by one specific company to enable you to do whatever it is that you do. Usually escaping from vendor lock-in will incur great personal cost. This could be financial or just needing to put considerably greater effort into achieving the same things without this company’s product. The reason that this is bad is because as a customer you are forced to follow the changes that a the company decides are necessary in order to continue doing your work. This may mean that you have to buy new software even if the software that you use still works perfectly for your needs. A good example of this is that in a few years ago Apple decided to change the way that the Core Audio system works in their High Sierra operating system. This meant that if you were still using Logic Pro version 9 then you needed to fork out for a new version of Logic Pro X. The stinger is that many users applied the “Free Upgrade” to MacOS High Sierra before they found out that their software wasn’t going to work any more. People might not be concerned about the £150 upgrade for Logic, but I can remember when Sibelius cost £700. There’s no wonder than Sibelius once had such a huge problem with piracy that they would pay people for reporting other users who had unlicensed copies.

Sibelius is currently the most popular sheet-music writing software in the circles that I work in. This includes both education and arranging work that I do for bands. I frequently hear people asking what version of Sibelius someone else uses because, for example, they still use version 7 and files created on version 8 or above won’t open. Is there a technical reason for this? Probably not! Considering that, minus the formatting, Sibelius can open all sorts of other files including midi and MusicXML. Why would their own file format change so drastically from one version to the next that they are completely incompatible? It’s just the company asserting its control over their customers and they’ve been pulling this trick for over twenty years. If a band pays me to arrange music for them I have to provide scores in a file format that they can edit or pass on to other arrangers in future, which means I need use Sibelius. In this case, I am a victim of somebody else’s vendor lock-in! My only other option is not to take on this work.

How does this affect the openArbanProject? One of the first things I created for the project was the soloist’s part for the Haydn Concerto linked above. There is already a copy of this work and many others available on IMSLP, but the engraving files have been written in Finale, which means that if you want to legally use them then you need to buy the software to do so. It also means that at some point in the future you will no longer be able to get software that opens these files. In order for the work of the openArbanProject to survive long term it must be done with open source software that will continue to be freely available to anybody in the future.

Want to know more?

Below is the video mentioned above in which I explain and demonstrate more about my workflow with Lilypond. If you wish to download the work that has been published so far then take a look at the openArbanProject website. Thank you for your interest. Please share.