Open Goldberg Variations: mission accomplished

Open Goldberg Variations: mission accomplished

The Open Goldberg Variations project has reached the last milestone: recordings and scores are available as public domain for admirers of classical music.

Goldeberg variations by Johann Sebastian Bach were originally composed for harpsichord. The score was published in 1741 while Bach was still alive, which was rather unusual in his case.

A collaboration between developers of MuseScore, a professional pianist Kimiko Ishizaka, her husband Robert Douglass who organized the project, and the producer Anne-Marie Sylvestre, Open Goldberg Variations made quite a splash last year, being one of the first successful Kickstarter campaigns in the classical music field.

The reason? The Kickstarter page is quite emphatic about that: “It's a shame that a work which has been in the public domain for hundreds of years is still hard to acquire and enjoy in both its notational and its recorded form. By making a public domain score and recording we're solving that problem.”

Kimiko Ishizaka, the pianist, adds: “It is frustrating that good versions of the public domain works aren't available online. Prior to the Open Goldberg Variations, the range of scores for this piece that could be downloaded for free was really small. So in that way we're really making a great contribution.”

She continues: “I'm hoping that there will be people who learn to love Bach, and the Goldberg Variations, because they find my work online for free, and give it a chance. They might always walk by the CD rack in the store without bothering to discover the beauty of this music, but now we've lowered the cost of trying it out to nothing. It would really make me feel successful to find out someday that someone loves the Goldbergs because of this project.”

Would you believe that such an ambitious and clearly cultural project could be born in the geeks department? And yet it was.

How the Open Goldberg Variations project started

It came from our internal MuseScore brainstorms” — Thomas Bonte, MuseScore developer, recalls — “We saw the Musopen kickstarter project and we were basically looking to do the same, but adding the open source score to it. As Robert is a long time friend of mine, we shared the idea. And as his wife is a professional piano player, it was a match.”

The team soon realized they'd rather focus on the score engraving and software development part and passed the torch to Robert, a formerly classically trained musician himself, who quickly set up the project's website and started promotion activity.

Kimiko in the studio

A month later the Kickstarter campaign was launched. In June 2011 it ended, and the goal ($15K) was exceeded by over $8K thanks to 406 backers. In January 2012 recording started, and now all of Goldbergs are finally available to everyone, free of charge.

Bringing MuseScore to the state of the art

By the time the kickstarter campaign launched Werner Schweer, principal developer of MuseScore, was already deep in work with score engraving. For this project Werner used four sources: the original Bach script which was very hard to read for him, a Busoni edition, a Czerny edition and a modern Henle edition.

The project turned out to be demanding for MuseScore. Werner says: “During the preparation of an initial version of the score I saw several deficiencies and possible enhancements of MuseScore. This has influenced further development of MuseScore a lot”.

What he discovered was that the MuseScore was missing some features required to create a high quality score. Implementing those features took some time. Here are just a few examples.

The score is partly very dense and uses several voices and extensive cross staff beaming. Done:

Cross-staff beams

In few cases a staff starts with a violin clef which is immediately followed by a bass clef without any notes between them. As MuseScore associated clefs with time (tick) positions, it was impossible to have more than one clef at one tick position. Done:

Alternating clefs

The work on these improvements was made in the unstable branch of MuseScore that will eventually become v2.0.

Working on the score and the cultural context

Meanwhile Kimiko Ishizaka started working on the project: “For me, the Open Goldberg Variations project meant the chance to seriously study and focus on one of the most wonderful works of all time. With the support of our fans, and my husband Robert, I had the time and clarity that is needed to look deeply enough into such a complicated work to really know it.

Kimiko was also actively involved with creating the score: “The process of working with Werner Schweer on this score was really fun. There is a lot of work that goes into reviewing the typesetting, and the accuracy of every note. That's the value that the famous editions of these works bring to people. We also put a lot of work into this score to make it a valuable tool for musicians.”

The score

As the result, the complete BWV988 is publicly available.

New frontiers

Interestingly enough, the collaboration between the musician and the MuseScore developers doesn't really stop there. Let's make a detour.

For the MuseScore project the website is becoming a hub for pretty much all future developments. Apart from working as a cloud storage of scores which can be downloaded from both MuseScore and various mobile apps it now has some extra features. One of them deserves a special attention: it's part of the newly developed score following solution.

Simply put, if you are at a concert with a smartphone or a tablet (iOS, Android etc.), and the score exists at, you can see the score in the browser, and while the performer is playing, you can see the score move up, measure by measure.

From technical point of view, API serves the data, and a node.js server distribute the changes such as measure changes. However right now it's not like you could go to an arbitrary concert with an iPhone and watch the score. After all, the world domination doesn't happen overnight.

Thomas explains the back story: “First time we started to work on score following was in Feb 2011 in New York with researcher Matt Prokup. We then started to work with a company from my home town Gent, in Belgium, called SampleSumo, which resulted in a follow-up hack, in Barcelona, June 2011. Later, in January 2012, there was another hack day in Cannes, France — yet another follow up on the same hack, but we added an audience component to it.

This new technology will be publicly demonstrated in Munich in just few days at Classical:NEXT. But it's not the first demo. Kimiko elaborates: “We're doing some concerts where the MuseScore is used along with SampleSumo to follow the score, and we project it to the audience so they can see what I'm playing. You can put it on a website or Facebook. It's just a whole new world of possibilities.”

Recording studio

Would it be somewhat disturbing if people started attending classical music concerts armed with iPads and meticulously following scores? Kimiko doesn't agree that it's likely to happen: “Music is a spiritual experience. Many people listen with their eyes closed. I think there's a place for the score following, but it won't become a standard part of performances. People should be inspired to try new things, and to find creative ways of enjoying the cultural treasures that we have. So we'll keep experimenting with it and see what comes of it.”

Thomas takes a relaxed view as well: “Professional musicians have told us that indeed it distracts and adds an extra sense, and thus it takes away the ability to hear the finesses, richness, etc. But then again, people who can't read sheet music feel empowered, because they are able to hear real time what they see. Somehow, they get the ability to read sheet music for the first time in their lives.”

Score following devices

Kimiko concludes: “I think it's fun to explore the possibilities, but I don't think that it's a particularly good idea to have lots of iPads going during the concert. A better application for these technologies is the iPad app itself, that the MuseScore team is working on. That gives you a really intense way to experience the music, with the audio and the score there in your hand at the same time.”

What's next

As you are reading this, an OpenGoldberg app for iPad is moving forward in the review queue for the AppStore. The app will download the complete OpenGoldberg recording and on playback the MuseScore sheet music will play along. The application uses the very same MuseScore library that drives the internals of upcoming MuseScore 2.0 and various apps for mobile devices.

The team has three parallel tracks now: desktop, web and mobile. For desktop, it's about getting MuseScore 2.0 released with all the changes introduced for last couple of years.

For web, it's improving, making it more social and improve interaction between MuseScore 2.0 and

As for mobile, it's releasing the app for iOS first, and the Android application after that. The app will offer playback, tempo change, font resize, tranposition, parts, etc. Eventually, the score follower will be part of the app as well.

The Open Goldberg Variations team

But wait, is that all there is to this Kickstarter campaign? No more projects like Open Goldberg Variations? Thomas clearly enjoys having a card up his sleeve: “Let's put it this way... What if we could open source all public domain scores with MuseScore?”

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43 Responses. Comments closed for this entry.

  1. Harald Korneliussen 29 May 2012 at 3:37 pm

    Those real-time features sure are nice, but I’ll point out there has been an open source, public domain typeset version of Bach’s Goldberg variations out since 2008: Hajo Dezelski’s version on Mutopia.

    Obviously, the more the better, and improving MuseScore is a worthy project in itself (I’ve had no success in converting my cellist sister to using the TeX-like Lilypond).

  2. Alexandre Prokoudine 29 May 2012 at 4:49 pm

    Indeed :) As far as I can tell, MuseScore is quite popular among people who are new to score engraving or who are way too used to visual approach having some Finale and Sibelius background. Can’t see why both couldn’t coexist.

  3. Thanks for this article, Alexandre. Not the kind of thing I follow on my own, but this is excellent and I looked forward to becoming more familiar with these works of Bach’s through these recordings.

  4. I am really thankful for this article, Alex but its true I have been looking for info in fact I am on right website, good work and I look forward to becoming more familiar. Keep visiting.

  5. The free OpenGoldberg iPad app is released! Enjoy:

  6. Alexandre Prokoudine 04 June 2012 at 9:23 pm

    Thomas, great news :)

  7. Kimiko Ishizaka has just announced a world tour playing Bach’s Well Tempered Clavier, Vol. 1. In addition to pre-order tickets to the six cities she’s visiting, she’s offering a digital recording of the “Best of the Tour”. Again, it’s starting with a Kickstarter project:

  8. Awesome!

  9. The score you have created in this chart seems very interesting. I must try this score.

  10. This work is really very interesting!
    As I’m working on something very similar in my grad studies (CS major and love for classical music) I was wondering if the score following you implemented is available as open source?
    Again, congrats, really great work!

  11. Hi jennifer,

    Please get in touch with me at thomas dot bonte on gmail so I can send you some more info about the score following and what open source tech we used for the ipad app.

  12. I didn’t know about it until today. I really enthusiastic about Goldeberg variations by Bach, and its really great to hear about the effort and cooperation that helped achieve that. From the comments here I understand it can be downloaded to the IPad. Definitely going to try that. Thanks!

  13. This is a really great idea, and like all great ideas it started by mistake.
    This project will improve MuseScore, and just by that its a great initiative.

  14. This work is really very interesting!
    As I’m working on something very similar in my grad studies (CS major and love for classical music) I was wondering if the score following you implemented is available as open source?
    Again, congrats, really great work!

  15. Dirk, the SampleSumo score following software is *not* open source. You can talk to them, though - - they’re cool guys, and maybe they can point you in some interesting directions.

  16. Hey Dirk,
    We used the Match plugin for the VAMP framework to synchronise the recording with the score. You can get the binary/code at

  17. I was actually talking about the technology in the Open Goldberg app for iPad. For that we used the Match plugin. As Robert said, the score follower from SampleSumo is not open source.

  18. I’ll definitely try this out!
    I’m download Goldberg right now

  19. Thanks for the info. Didn’t know that the Goldberg variations can now be found easily. Also, thanks for the app.

  20. thanks for the information.. :)

  21. WOW, A fantastic concept and a superb recording. Thank you for this great work. Hope we will see and hear more of you in the near future.

  22. WOW, A fantastic concept and a superb recording. Thank you for this great work. Hope we will see and hear more of you in the near future. and i feel batter then this look awesome its great idea

  23. This type of work has helped us so much in the creation and drive of our band.  Keep it up guys.  We need you!

  24. WOW, A fantastic concept and a superb recording

  25. I’ve downloaded The Open Goldberg Variations by Kimiko Ishizaka - its just such beautiful music. I use to listen to the awesome tunes when I’m preparing my lectures (I work at the university). Awesome bank of music.

  26. Excellent achievement, though I don’t know much about classical music, I can appreciate it, most of time, when it’s not being too gloomy.

  27. The OpenGoldberg team is back with a new project: Open Well-Tempered Clavier. Check it out at

  28. Thanks for this article. Very useful. I love Bach and these recordings are absolutely fascinating.

  29. Hey! just osm article i liked it much! keep sharing the ultimate articles :)

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  30. Wow thank you for those recordings!  Keep up the great work guys :)

  31. I’m really loving this, some really beautiful works here.

  32. lovin it, adding to my collection as soon as possible. I starting love this classical music stuff this year.

  33. Hey ALEXANDRE, it was definitely read of the day.. I’m a big fan of classical music but wasn’t having great numbers to listen up. This particular one is added in my playlist but.. Thanks for sharing and story as well.. Cheers :)

  34. I’m really loving this, some really beautiful works here. and you are best of the best.

  35. Well done people. Classical music will live forever. Spent nice time reading here. Thanks.

  36. This is fantastic! Why haven’t I heard about this before ... I love Bach’s music and have loved it ever since the first time heard the Brandenburg concertos when I was in my mid-twenties.

    Regards from Denmark
    - Jan

  37. Open Goldberg Variations project is a real achievement in the field of classical music.
    Alexandre, thanks very much for sharing this informative article on the project.

  38. <a >imo is the trending social software</a>

  39. I think classic music is great and it will remain great.

  40. Thanks, Alex…
    Never Knew Goldberg Variations became so easy to download.
    I am on it.
    Thank you.

  41. Not this kind of thing that I use to follow but nice writeup! Good job. I’ll look into it further.

  42. Thanks, Alex…
    Never Knew Goldberg Variations became so easy to download.
    I am on it.
    Thank you.