Open Source Sacred Music

It has been a (relatively) long time since the software world managed to come to something like a consensus on the nature of free and open source software. To someone who is more-or-less fluent in the language of copyleft and open licensing, the accounts of the early days of figuring out how to distinguish between “free as in beer” (no cost) and “free as in speech” (no restrictions) seem a bit quaint. In software, this stuff now seems inevitable.

But when you move outside of the Open Source software movement, into other fields of creative endeavor, the culture of Open Source – its language, ethos, and tool set – are still a non-inevitable early stage. The translation of concepts from Open Software licenses such as GNU General Public License into Open Culture licenses such as Creative Commons has not been without misunderstanding, even among strong advocates of Open Culture.

While examples of this can be found in a number of endeavors, this blog (and this writer) is concerned primarily with Sacred Music, and so I’d like to speak directly to the issues, problems, shortcomings, and successes of Open Source and Copyleft within the Sacred Music (and, by extension, the traditional liturgical) movement.

The Successes of Free Culture in Sacred Music

I could write an essay about each of the major contributions to Sacred Music made in the last few years in a Free Culture context. As a reader of this blog, you are probably familiar with most or all of them. Just to mention a few:

Choral Public Domain Library
A gigantic (over 15,000 score pages) library of free choral music, built by over 800 contributors in a manner similar to Wikipedia.
The Church Music Association of America has produced and published a number of important Gregorian Chant books, perhaps most notably the Parish Book of Chant. Along with producing new work (or new editions of old works), the CMAA has also made a number of out-of-print resources available for free download, working to secure copyright permission to do so when needed. Most influentially (in my opinion) the CMAA has promoted and advocated the use of Free and Open resources in Sacred Music and provided a shared space for working (and hopeful) church musicians to discuss the issues they face in real life. This activity has furthered the cause of Free and Open culture almost as much as it has supported their stated cause of traditional Sacred Music.
The Catholic Choir Book
A curated “freemium” resource for choral anthems in English and Latin, that offers free-to-download-and-copy music along with the option to purchase books.
Corpus Christi Watershed
Primarily the undertaking of one incredibly ambitious and over-working musicologist, Corpus Christi Watershed also straddles the line between Free and conventional publishing. CCW sells a number of IP-protected resources, and also has also worked to provide both Free and Open materials. While they are currently most famous for their “Vatican II Hymnal” (a fine undertaking, also in the freemium model), I am most impressed with the effort that has gone into the St. Jean de Lelande Library of Rare Books. Also, the (unusually so, for CCW) Open-Source approach to the Chabanel Psalms and Garnier Alleluia projects has been inspirational.

These, and many other projects and undertakings large and small, have greatly reduced the cost and difficulty of implementing a traditional Sacred Music program in a real parish. For this reason, all of the projects and their creators are (in my mind) heroes to Sacred Music.

Moreover, the success (in terms of mission, if not finances) of these works have spurred interest and (somewhat hesitant) acceptance of the principals of Open Source and Open Culture.

The Weakness of Free and Open Culture in Sacred Music

Unfortunately, even some of the strongest proponents of a Free and Open approach to Sacred Music resources (Jeffrey Tucker, for one) seem to have a fundamental misunderstanding of the nature of “Free and Open.” Some of these misunderstandings mirror the confusion and fuzziness of the early Open Source Software movement. Some of the confusion stems from naïve or incomplete understanding of copyright law and its Copyleft alternate-universe. Finally, some of the confusion and hesitancy stems simply from issues particular to music creation which are not present in other forms of creative work, such as computer programming.

Freedom isn’t Free

I alluded to this above, and anyone who has spent time in the Open Source community will be familiar with the phrases “Free as in beer” and “Free as in speech.”

Many of the Sacred Music resources offered for free online are only free in the way beer is free at a frat-party: it doesn’t cost anything to get it. This form of “free,” also known as “gratis,” is incredibly helpful for church musicians on limited budgets. In fact, it is so incredibly helpful that many content-creators (composers, arrangers, hymnists) think they have contributed to Free and Open Culture by providing their work as a free download on the web.

Without denigrating the usefulness of these no-cost resources, it’s important to realize that they are not truly free in the “freedom” sense of that word, also known as “libre.” This “free-as-in-speech” concept is as important as no-cost, because it is the component of “Free and Open” that allows a culture of remix and adaptation to thrive.

Suppose I write a hymn text in Long Meter (four line stanzas, eight syllables to each stanza), set it to a tune I like (let’s say, Conditor Alme Siderum), and then release that hymn for free download on my website. Now suppose another musician finds it and likes the text, but wants to sing it to another tune (let’s say, O Waly Waly). If all I’ve done is provide a free-to-download pdf of the text set to a particular tune, and not made any other specific claims or releases in terms of copyright, that other musician will need to specifically request and receive my permission before re-setting the text to another tune.

Now- that might not seem like too much friction to some people, but it is. The requirement to ask permission deflates the moment of inspiration when someone suddenly finds or realizes exactly the thing that is needed. Some people know so little about copyright and permissions issues that they become hesitant about asking for permission, worried that they don’t know the right protocol for doing so. Some may worry that the original creator will say no, or request a fee of some sort- and so they either don’t do anything at all or (rightly assuming they probably won’t get caught) go ahead and use the work, but never mention publicly that they have done so, keeping their new creation to themselves and away from the benefit of others.

This tiny bit of friction is multiplied out over the entire network of Sacred Music, hindering the possibilities of creative expression in tiny, almost imperceptible ways. A single hymn text not sung. An SAB arrangement not composed. A Spanish translation not written. The missing-but-not-missed pieces multiply over time, creations that never were leading to adaptations that can never be.

The only solution to this, the only defense against the ever-growing lacuna is for all creators of content to specifically allow adaptations of their work, and to communicate that allowance through the use of Open Culture licensing.

Not all freedoms are created equal

More and more creators are understanding the issues I mentioned above in relationship to the freedom to remix, re-use, and adapt. The practicalities of real parish work have provided many of us with a strong understanding of the need to modify existing material, often on short notice.

However, there continues to be one single giant stumbling block in terms of creative freedom within the Sacred Music community: the freedom to use work commercially.

Since most of us are operating in a church-and-school paradigm of religous-music programming, it does not occur to to us in any obvious way that restricting “Commercial Use” (usually done with the Non-Commercial modifier on the Creative Commons License) is a problem. But it is a very serious problem, and works that have been restricted with a non-commercial license are NOT FREE.

The (cultural) problem here is a misunderstanding and mischaracterization of what “commercial” means, and the role commerce plays in art and culture. This is compounded by a (often deserved) distaste for the major commercial publishers of church music, combined with a residual and (for most of us, false) hope that we can make money through licensing our own works.

I myself struggled with the notion of allowing commercial use for a long time. Specifically- I release all of my work for free because I believe I have a moral obligation to do so. I thought that this moral obligation extended to also preventing others from commercializing my work. The explanation provided by changed my way of thinking about all of this. I encourage you to read their explanation, which I will try to summarize and expand upon.

The simple fact of the matter is this: if there is something restricted, then the thing isn’t free. Restricting commercial use, by definition, makes a work less than free. For some people, that’s enough explanation. For others, for whom freedom itself may not be a goal, this is not sufficient reason to specifically allow unrestricted commerical use of their work.

Commercial doesn’t mean Big Industry

When most of us think about restricting commercial use, we imagine big, greedy companies (or fly-by-night internet scam publishers) exploiting our work without remunerating us. That’s generally not what is being avoided.

Big publishers don’t understand Copyleft- they understand royalties and payments and contracts. It is extremely unlikely that GIA or OCP are going to republish and sell your music just because they can. Hundreds of thousands of works of sacred music in the Public Domain are studiously avoided by the big publishers already. If they aren’t “stealing” that music, they probably aren’t going to steal yours, either.

Commercial includes a lot of things…

Suppose I adapt your work for use at my parish. That’s non-commercial, right? Now suppose I put a PDF of my adaptation onto my website for free download. Still non-commercial, right?

Now suppose I have ads on the sidebar of my website to help defray the cost of running my blog, and maybe to make a little extra money. Is that commercial? Yes, as a matter of fact it is, and it means that this is technically prohibited by your well-meaning non-commercial restriction.

Commercial has nothing to do with for-profit or non-profit (which are designations having to do with corporate tax-code, not the intentions of human beings). Commercial (in relationship to Creative Commons, anyway) has to do with “commercial advantage or private monetary exchange.” New Liturgical Movement runs ads on their site; that probably makes them commercial. Noel Jones sells books; that definitely makes him commercial.

Fundraising concerts are commercial. YouTube videos are commercial. Even Wikipedia is commercial.

Commerce provides an incentive to redistribute

I can get a printed copy of The King James Bible for a few bucks on Amazon. I can get a gorgeous, leather-bound display edition for a few more. This is made possible because someone, somewhere, has figured out how to make money by providing it.

If no one could make money doing so, such low-cost editions of creative works would likely not be available. Sure, I might still be able to get an oddly-formatted e-book from Project Gutenberg, but I’d have to print it myself if I want to read it without recharging my iPad.

By restricting the commerical-use of a creative work, we are cutting that work off from the eco-system where it can be distributed by any means that seem expedient at any time. Like the lacuna of non-existant work mentioned above, this restriction creates a lacuna of presence. The work may exist- but not as many people will have the chance to be touched by it.

Commerce is a good and wonderful thing

Commerce, the ability to trade things for other things, is the basis for all but the most spiritually-oriented human achievements. And it isn’t just big huge companies that profit from commerce. Besides the generalized benefits we all receive from commerce, it’s important to realize that many of the practicioners of commerce are small- very small.

Small-scale commerce provides billions of people the ability to feed themselves and their children, to make a better world than the one they have been left by tyrants and do-gooders. Some have figured out how to sell Coca-Cola products from the back of a bicycle, others have learned to arbitrage the price of grain in two neighboring villages. And yes, some- few now, but increasingly more – have figured out how to make money by reprinting free works available on the internet and selling hard-copies of them.

It may seem implausible that a third-world subsistence-seller would be interested in hymn texts or Latin motets or Anglican chant settings. But much weirder things have been known to happen. Restricting commercial use of one’s work either stops this from happening altogether, or (worse) criminalizes behaviour that cannot be stopped.

To quote

The people who are likely to be hurt by an -NC license are not large corporations, but small publications like weblogs, advertising-funded radio stations, or local newspapers.

Just say NO to non-commercial

I encourage creators who are truly committed to the development of a thriving Sacred Music ecosystem to stop appending the “NC” modifier to their Creative Commons licenses.

Free doesn’t mean Open

The least obvious (and – in my mind- the most important) shortcoming of the burgeoning Free Culture movement within the Sacred Music community is the almost complete abscense of anything that is truly “Open Source.”

Free (gratis) has to do with price- there is plenty of material available at no cost. Free (libre) has to do with restrictions- and there is more and more work being produced with fewer and fewer restrictions.

But Open Source has to do with the method of distribution(and, by extension, the method of creation).

Even Jeffrey Tucker has gotten this wrong on a number of occasions, referring to free resources at CMAA and CCW as “Open Source,” when they were, in fact, no such thing.

“Source” is the key word here

For something to be “Open Source,” the “source code” behind it has to be open and available. Almost nothing within the CMAA-community meets this qualification.

Suppose I write a hymn text and set it to Conditor Alme Siderum, and publish a PDF of that setting on my website. Even if I release it completely free in terms of licensing, I haven’t really released it as Open Source.

If someone wants to harmonize my hymn, they’re going to need to re-create the work I already did, typing words and music into their music-editor of choice. Even if I make the Finale notation files available, I still haven’t really remedied the situation. Finale is proproetary software, so someone would need to purchase it before they could benefit from my “source file.” Further, they would need a compatible version of the software- which can create serious hassle. This hassle makes it more difficult (and therefore less likely) for others to adapt or remix content in value-adding ways.

File format matters

Most of the Free work available in the Sacred Music community is distributed in the form of PDFs. This is analogous to a software endeavor that only releases compiled binaries- it is not Open Source, regardless of the permissive nature of the license.

To quote from the Open Source Initiative’s definition of Open Source:

The program must include source code, and must allow distribution in source code as well as compiled form. Where some form of a product is not distributed with source code, there must be a well-publicized means of obtaining the source code for no more than a reasonable reproduction cost preferably, downloading via the Internet without charge. The source code must be the preferred form in which a programmer would modify the program. Deliberately obfuscated source code is not allowed. Intermediate forms such as the output of a preprocessor or translator are not allowed.

This requirement may be difficult for those of us who have grown accustomed to proprietary tools such as Finale or Sibelius, or who use semi-arcane graphics-based methods for music typesetting. However, the discomfort of learning to use tools such as LilyPond (for conventional music notation), Gregorio (for Gregorian Chant), and LaTeX (for document and book publishing) is a very small investment each one of us can and should make in service of the development of a truly thriving Open Source Sacred Music community.

Why Open Source matters

The two obvious reasons that Open Source matters are alluded to above- the relative ease of modification and the freedom from proprietary software requirements. But there are much more subtle, and just as important, reasons why a robust ecology of actually Open Source material is desirable.

Greater adoption means better tools

The larger the community of people using tools like LilyPond or (especially) Gregorio, the higher the chance that these tools will be further developed and improved upon.

The Code is the Content

An interesting difference between Open Source software and Open Source music is that software is a tool, while music is a product. Software creates, stores, or manipulates information. Music is information.

Thanks to computers and the internet, musicologists and music theorists are within grasping distance of the ultimate tool for conducting their work: the ability to programatically analyse vast quantities of music at once. I recently read a comparison of Gregorian Chant with Jewish Temple music- showing examples of shared melodic motifs and other points of (possibly) shared origin. Up to now, and even today, this type of comparative work can mostly only be conducted by scholars who have spent lifetimes enmeshed in the literature of two or more traditions. A human being can’t randomly search for “things in this giant body of work that are similar to things in that giant body of work” – it’s impossible. But imagine what we could learn if the analytical tools currently employed by Wall Street trading algorithms were instead being deployed on behalf of musicological research.

This kind of work – from comparative studies to harmonic analysis to structural mapping – is only possible if music itself is made available in ways that are standardized and computer-readable. PDFs and images and Finale files do not meet this criteria, but LilyPond and Gregorio files do. Every score published in source-code format is one more step in the direction of understanding the fundamental underpinnings of the world of Sacred Music that we inhabit.

Lone-rangers are not Free and Open

Finally, the last piece of the Free and Open Sacred Music puzzle is an increased sense of collaboration, and the use of tools which enable it.

With the exception of CPDL (which is a repository, not a workshop), all of the Free resources I know of in the Sacred Music world are the work of dedicated and over-worked individuals. This is not surprising, and can never not be the case.

However, by effectively hoarding the means of production, creators are cutting themselves off from the ability to spread the effort to other people. This is caused, I think, by a combination of factors.

Use of collaboration-unfriendly creation tools

It’s a little difficult for three or a dozen people to collaborate on a single Finale or InDesign file. The best one can hope for is chunking-out specific sub-tasks (one person writes text, another sets the text to a melody, another harmonizes, another typesets), but this usually has to be done in a fairly linear way, which means one person with a sudden lack of free time can hold up the entire process.

Moreover, these graphics-based tools require on-the-spot judgment during creation, and often have difficulty implementing any kind of automated custom-style guide. For these reasons, the simple task of document creation has to be done by someone with a complete vision of the work and an eye for the minutiae of kerning and beaming. This generally means that whoever is “leading” the project is the only one who can actually do substantial work on it.

This is unfortunate, as there are many willing-and-able “workers” within the community who have the time and talent to contribute in large and small ways but who, for one reason or another, are not leading major undertakings of their own.

However, with code-based creation tools such as LilyPond, Gregorio, and LaTex the minutiae of layout and style can be left to the automation of the rendering engine, or programmed a single time for the entire work. This allows contributors to work in a non-linear fashion, on whatever portion of the overall endeavor they wish, at any time.

Lack of collaboration-enabling tools

Besides the use of specific creation software (LilyPond instead of Finale, LaTeX instead of InDesign), the other techno-challenge for Open Source is collaboration a robust collaboration and distribution platform.

Most Free Resources are only made available on individual’s websites. Some people take the time to post their end-product at an online forum or CPDL, but there is usually no inside view of the process itself, no source for the Source.

Sacred Music creators need to adopt the collaboration tools that have been pioneered and perfected by our friends in the Open Source Software world. Specifically, I mean version-controlled source-code repositories.

While there are a number of options and competing services (even competing paradigms) I am personally of the opinion that GitHub is the best solution for Open Source collaboration. To be somewhat over-dramatic: GitHub should be the future of Free and Open Sacred Music.

Where do we go from here?

In online forums, blog comments, and in personal conversations, we can see a wide range of incredibly useful large-scale projects that should and could exist in the real world. Cycles of Propers, bilingual chant resources, translated motets, organ accompaniments, new hymnals.

And the list of existing, but not online, materials- ancient manuscripts, out of print books, public domain artwork- is staggeringly long.

Some of these resources will be built by dedicated and over-worked perfectionists laboring on their own. That’s fine- it got us the Simple English Propers and the Vatican II hymnal and the Parish Book of Chant.

But unless more of us adopt the ethos and practices of the Open Source movement, a great number of these resources will never exist, will never benefit anyone, will never advance the cause of music that is truly Sacred, Beautiful, and Universal.

How do I help?

Learn more about what Free really means…
Learn what Open Source really means…
…at the Open Source Initiative.
Learn how to write music in source code…
…with Lilypond for conventional music.
…and Gregorio for Gregorian Chant
Learn to use version-control software…
…at GitHub.
Continue the conversation
…by sharing this article with your friends.
…by reposting this article (or a link to it) on your own blog.
…by talking about it at the MusicSacra Forum
…by leaving comments below.

4 thoughts on “Open Source Sacred Music

  1. I’m not convinced about your argument that publishing a PDF score fails to meet the definition of “open source”. A printable score isn’t comparable to a compiled binary executable software file, for a couple of reasons.

    First, the concept of “open source” may not really apply to music, because the process of producing music isn’t analogous to producing software. A compiled binary is a usable program. It’s the final product of a software development process. A score, however, is only a representation of a work of music. The work has its own distinct existence, and it can be performed without the score.

    Or, if we do posit that music can have a “source code”, it’s fair to say that a score is a fair representation of it. It discloses all the needed information present in a corresponding Finale or Lilypond source file. If you have a score, it’s only an inconvenience to create a corresponding Lilypond file: a fairly trivial task of “reverse engineering”: really, just transcription.

    Prescinding from this issue, though, you’ve offered some good observations here. Thanks for the piece.

  2. It’s possible that you’re right in the conception that a piece of music can have no source code at all, the Open Source in the software sense does not and cannot apply.

    But my position is that to the extant there can be an analogy, only text-based, open-format representations can count as “Source.” Along with LilyPong and Gregorio, I believe Music XML would qualify.

    The reason for this is not philosophical- pertaining to the nature of music as opposed to the nature of software. My reasoning here is wholly practical- text-based source-code is editable, searchable, and translatable. Text-based source files of scores provide all the benefits that are implied by rule #2 of the Open Source Definition, and additionally carry the musicological benefits I mentioned.

  3. Pingback: Open Source Liturgy & Music | haligweorc

Comments are closed.