It’s Time For A New Music Standard


Back in the 80’s and early 90’s sound cards were pretty limited and that resulted in a brief period where something known as “Piano Roll Notation” enjoyed a bit of a resurgence.

Piano Roll Notation comes from the old concept of a player piano that played songs by reading a roll of material that had marks on it that told it what keys to hit. This concept evolved over time and was used heavily to create all sorts of MIDI (another standard) music and other types as well. Popular products appeared that supported it including one that became so popular for the company that they adopted the product name as their company name—Cakewalk.

In Cakewalk you can choose just about any supported instrument and assign notes to it including details like duration, for example. This approach makes it fairly easy for people who don’t even play an instrument to create extremely diverse pieces of music. I can’t play a lick on much of anything but I created a number of songs this way.

Now, flash-forward to the present. Piano Roll Notation is back though I don’t know if a lot of people realize it. In fact, it’s more popular today, by a wide margin, than it’s ever been historically. The presentation used in both the Guitar Hero series and its competitor, Rock Band (along with some other products) is a classic Piano Roll Notation system. All the notes they play are presented just as they would have been decades ago to a player piano.

The success of this approach is simply incredible. These two products have nearly re-written the rules for the music industry and I think it’s time for the whole industry to take notice. Both Guitar Hero and Rock Band have the ability to add more songs to the mix. In fact, it’s already been reported that an upcoming version of Guitar Hero will support the ability of users to create their own music (without vocals) and you can bet they’ll be doing it using a Piano Roll Notation system.

So, what’s the point of a new standard? My thinking is simple—It’s time for the music industry to push for a new PRN standard that incorporates these popular product formats. Why? So that everyone can benefit. Right now we all have to wait for new songs to trickle out from the game publishers. They create the content and it all takes forever. Meanwhile there are millions of people who want to “play” their favorite music now.

Imagine if you’re responsible for a major recording artist. Let’s say you represent the rock band, “Rush“. Rush already has three songs available for play on Rock Band but I want a lot more. Why should I wait for Rock Band’s developer, Harmonix, to get around to expanding this content? How long am I likely to wait for them to do it with all the other music out there to get to? It could take literally years, if you’re lucky. So now imagine you’re Rush. Why shouldn’t Rush be able to go ahead, following a PRN standard and create compatible song files of their catalog of songs that will work with all PRN-supporting products?

If I were Harmonix, I’d be all for this. If I’m Rush, I’d be all for it. As a customer I’m all for it. I could go to the Rush website and buy these PRN files and then add them to my Rock Band experience. In fact, I’d buy a LOT of my entire music collection again if the bands would offer new versions of their collections with PRN files included. Everyone can take a snippet and suddenly the music industry is a lot happier than they are now. They’re providing something new that has our interest again. Meanwhile the consumer doesn’t have to wait forever for their favorite songs to show up.

My father just came over and he’d have loved to take part in Rock Band but he wants to sing along with songs from Frank Sinatra, etc. How long will it take for a product like Rock Band to get around to Frank? Good luck there. Meanwhile you’ve got a huge retiring generation out there who would go for it. Had the option been there my father would have broken out his wallet and ordered a few Sinatra PRN tunes right then just to be able to sing them while the rest of us played along. Yes, those would represent easier songs for those of us used to playing much of what’s offered now but it would have been worth it to get everyone involved.

So how do we go about getting this to happen?

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