MAKING MUSIC WITH MIDI FILES

By James Frankel

 

Many music teachers that I know, myself included, are always looking for ways get high-quality free sheet music online.  While there are a few websites that offer free downloadable PDF files of standard tunes, users cannot edit the files once they download them to suit their individual needs unless they use music scanning software (which is discussed later in this article).  Many traditional sheet music retailers, including J.W. Pepper, are now offering many titles as PDF files available for downloading on their websites as well (www.jwpepper.com). J.W. Pepper offers the first page of the conductors score to many of their arrangements so that a user can preview the difficulty level of the arrangement. 

Being able to download PDF files of band, orchestra, and choral arrangements allows the user to print out as many copies as are available in the standard arrangement (6 flute parts, 2 oboe parts, etc.).  It also cuts out the cost and the time required for shipping.  J.W. Pepper, however, is in business, so they are not giving their arrangements away.

So where can music educators find free arrangements online that they can customize for use in their own performing instrumental ensembles?  I admit they are rather difficult to find. While choral music teachers have an amazing resource in the Choral Public Domain Library (www.cpdl.org) where there are thousands of free arrangements in the PDF format of choral works from the public domain, instrumental music teachers are not so lucky.  They do other have options however.

There are millions of Standard MIDI Files (SMF or .mid files) online containing music from the public domain (as well as copyright protected material) that can be converted to readable sheet music using notation software with a little know-how and a few clicks of the mouse ­ and itıs mostly all legal (only SMFs containing works from the public domain are legal). 

The purpose of this article is to provide music educators with a step-by-step guide complete with ideas on where to find SMFs, how to convert them to notation (using both Finale and Sibelius), and how to customize them for the needs of your particular performing ensemble. 

 

A Quick Note on Music Scanning Software:

 

            Both Finale and Sibelius offer music-scanning software titles that partner with their respective applications (SmartScore for Finale and PhotoScore for Sibelius).  These software titles allow the user to scan written music into their computers that is then converted to a notation file that can be edited.   Both offer ³lite² versions (PhotoScore Lite comes free with Sibelius, SmartScore has a MIDI Scanner ($99) that only converts sheet music to MIDI files) that do an adequate job, but I highly recommend upgrading to their professional versions (which cost between $199 and $399) as only these versions recognize marks of edition (the ³lite² versions do not) which saves the user hours of time inputting these marks manually.  You should be aware that while you can scan in a conductorıs score and both extract and print out individual parts for your ensembles, it is a clear case of copyright infringement and is illegal.

 

Understanding Standard MIDI Files

 

            The MIDI Manufacturers Association (www.midi.org) created the Standard MIDI File to ensure a universal file structure for the Internet that was viable regardless of which computer platform was being used.    Standard MIDI Files (SMFs or .mid) are very small files that contain a string of binary code that triggers everything from pitch and rhythmic values to instrument timbre, tempo, dynamics, and key velocity.  Every SMF or .mid file has a similar structure so that any brand of computer knows exactly how to handle it and in turn, plays it back the same.

            Most computers know how to handle SMFs automatically, using programs such as QuickTime, WinAmp, and Window Media Player.  These software programs come with a complete set of 128 industry standard sounds (called General MIDI patches or GM) that allow your computer to play back MIDI files.

 

Where To Find Standard MIDI Files

 

            There are many websites on the Internet that have MIDI files posted for downloading.  There are some are very good sites, but most are a collection of random files with little or no educational value.  The following sites offer some really great files:

 

www.classicalarchives.com

 

This website, the Classical MIDI Archives, is the best source of public domain works in the classical genre.  There are literally tens of thousands of MIDI files (as well as other file types) available for downloading.  For example, every instrumental work of Bach, Mozart, Haydn (among many others) is available.  Users are required to subscribe to the site in order to download, but this free subscription allows you to download five MIDI files per day (a $25 yearly subscription gives you unlimited downloads). 

 

www.mididb.com

 

Simply called the MIDI Database, this website is great for finding free MIDI files of popular music.  Everything from Gene Autry to Pantera can be found on the site.  There is also a great links menu to other MIDI File Archives on the Internet.  While most MIDI files of popular music will sound ³cheesy² you can do great things with them once they are downloaded.

 

www.manythings.org/midi

 

While this website looks a bit disorganized, there are hundreds of links to websites containing MIDI files of various genres.  There is also a search feature on this site that makes it easier to find a specific song, rather than browsing through many files.

 

www.harmony-central.com/MIDI/

 

This website is called Harmony Central and is supported by Sweetwater Music.  The site has hundreds of MIDI-related links, including how-to guides, discussion forums, and of course, links to MIDI archives.  A great launch site if you are interested in the world of MIDI.  Once again, the content on this site is free.

There are many other MIDI sites online.  If youıd like to find some on your own, visit www.google.com and enter the song title you are looking for and then type + MIDI. 

 

Downloading MIDI Files

 

Downloading MIDI files is extremely simple, regardless of which computer platform you are using.  On both a Macintosh and a PC you simply press the Control key while you click on the file name (you can also right click the file name on a PC).  When you control click on the file name you will be presented with a menu.  Click ³download linked file as² or the equivalent (this varies depending on which browser you are using).  A word to the wise ­ keep track of where you are saving your files.  It makes for an easier time finding them when importing them.

 

Converting Standard MIDI Files To Notation Files

 

            Once you have downloaded the file youıd like to use, open your notation software (either Finale or Sibelius).  If you are using Finale, use the ³open² option from the File menu and select your MIDI file.  You will then see an ³Import MIDI File Options² menu.  Most often, if you just click ³OK² on this menu, your MIDI file will open up as a notation file after a brief conversion process.  If you have problems opening the file this way, you may need to try some of the import options to fix them.

            Using Sibelius, you can either open the MIDI file from the Quick Start Menu, or you can use the ³open² option from the File menu and again, select the MIDI file youıd like to convert.

            Some MIDI files convert better than others. Complex rhythms usually cause some problems when converting.  The more complex they are the higher the probability that there will be some problems converting the file.  If the person who created the file quantized the selection before they uploaded it, chances are it will convert without problems.  Some users however, just record themselves playing the music live, and the MIDI file contains many extremely complex rhythms.  For example, if you convert Joplinıs Maple Leaf Rag from a file that does not use quantization, you might end up with 32nd and 64th notes and rests that do not exist in the original manuscript.  Some MIDI files convert with little or no errors and some are unusable.  Most of the files on the Classical MIDI Archives convert perfectly, but other sites are a bit more hit and miss.

           

Arranging Converted Standard MIDI Files For Your Ensemble

 

            Once you have converted your MIDI file you can customize it to suit the needs of your performing ensemble.  Most MIDI files convert into different tracks so that each individual part is on a separate staff.  You can easily convert these parts to the instrumentation you need.  I suggest opening a new score with your desired instrumentation and then cut and paste the parts from the converted score into your new score.  Both Finale and Sibelius point out range errors in your parts, so you donıt even have to worry about orchestration!

With the arrange feature in Sibelius (Finale 2004 does not have this feature) you can highlight the parts from the converted score, open a new score with your desired instrumentation, and Sibelius will arrange the selection based on various specifications.  Sibelius actually asks you questions about your ensemble when you use the arrange feature to better fit your ensemble.

Once you have converted the MIDI file and  customized the arrangement, you are ready to print it out and have your ensemble begin rehearsing it.

  While this may sound like a great deal of effort for a free arrangement, once you have done it a few times itıs really quite easy.  You might even try having your students make their own arrangements using the same procedure. 

 

To Find Out More About MIDI

 

If you think about it, it really is amazing what you can get out of a stream of zeros and ones.  If youıd like to find out more about MIDI files and what you can do with them, visit www.midi.org.  There are also two great books that I highly recommend: MIDI For Musicians by Craig Anderton, and MIDI Basics by Lee Whitmore and Debbie Cavalier.  If you have any questions, please feel free to email me at jtfrankel@hotmail.com or visit my website at www.jamesfrankel.com.