Digital Preservation

Suggested guidelines for composers from the Contemporary Music Centre, Ireland April 2012


Digital preservation may be defined as "the active management of digital content over time to ensure ongoing access". This is an important issue as many composers work almost exclusively with digital tools when it comes to the composition and storage of their works. Many musical works now exist in complex, heterogeneous formats and rely on different software packages and programming languages to exist. To ensure that these materials are accessible to future computer operating systems and software packages, composers must take active steps to digitally preserve their works. The following is a list of possible digital preservation approaches for composers. This list is by no means definitive or prescriptive; instead it aims to raise awareness of some of the issues which digital preservation poses and point to some possible solutions which composers might consider deploying when it comes to managing their work.

Music notation files

Save finished copies of your music score files as PDFs

  • Creating a readable PDF file of the score will ensure that the score can be re-encoded in a music notation programme in the event of data-loss or software incompatibility
  • Where possible, all PDFs created should be in the PDF/A - 1 standard, which is suitable for long-term digital preservation [1]

Consider exporting each completed music score to other music formats

  • These formats might include the open source sheet music format MusicXML [2] or MIDI. MusicXML is natively supported by both Sibelius and Finale software packages and plug-ins are maintained for reading and exporting from both programs. Exporting to MusicXML will maintain a platform independent file, thereby increasing the chances of the file being opened by future music notation software applications.

Re-save final versions of files in their native file format after each major update of the music notation software

  • this will help avoid any potential data loss and guard against conversion issues between versions.

Audio recordings

Decide which audio recordings are important and worth preserving

  • Pick the ones which you feel are the most important
  • For multiple versions of audio, decide which of these you need to keep

Save an uncompressed master copy in AIFF or WAV

  • AIFF or WAV are both preferred preservation formats according to the Library of Congress [3]
  • If necessary save compressed "access" copies of your audio files in mp3 or mp4 formats. These could be useful for backing up to cloud-based services.

Consider retaining audio session data

  • Retaining audio sessions for works, for example ProTools or Logic sessions, will ensure that the audio can be re-edited or re-exported
  • Re-save these sessions after each major update of the audio-editing software you use
  • Routinely open up past audio sessions to ensure that no corruption of the files has occurred

Electronic materials

These include materials such as Max patches, interactive programs or custom software used for the performance of works. Since many of these file types are non-standard, they can pose a problem when it comes to their longterm preservation, however a few basic steps taken will help lessen the threat posed by digital obsolescence. Maintain proper documentation

  • Use descriptive text to document what the software is meant to do. This can be a short, plaintext file which describes how the software works and what it is meant to do as part of the work.
  • Consider including written instructions of what the electronic part sounds like in the score. This will allow the work to be re-constructed in the event of the electronic files being unplayable through data loss or file corruption.
  • Make use of screen shots taken of the software to illustrate what it looks like and how it behaves. These screen shots could be used alongside any descriptive text produced to show how the software functions.

Re-open files after each software update

  • If they are operating normally, then resave them in the updated version of the software
  • Consider keeping the previous version of the files in case you need to revert to using them

Maintain an archive of old software packages

  • These can be used in the event of any software incompatibles should you need to reinstall the software so that the files can work

File management and storage

Where and how the digital materials are stored is an important aspect of good digital preservation practice. Materials should be stored in secure, multiple locations and if possible on different media. Develop a system for storing your materials

  • Decide on a consistent approach for storing all files related to your works. An example of this might be storing your files in a simple folder structure, with a single folder for each work and sub-folders containing different versions.
  • Give each file a clear name and include any important information about the recording in the title, for example the version, recording/creation date. This simple approach of using key pieces of information in the file names can be a very effective way in helping to clearly identify the files when quickly scanning through directories of files.
  • Make a note of your file system and include any details on how you store your works
  • Regularly backup your works and make sure that all files are backed up off-site. The 3 - 2 - 1 backup rule is a good approach to backing up: three different backups on two different types of media (eg external hard-drive, DVD, CD-R, thumb-drive), with a least one copy stored off-site.
  • Record a description of the contents of all the files in a plain text document. This can include any important details about the works and materials stored.

Include as much information as possible about the works with the files

  • This information or metadata includes such details as the composer, work title, date composed and copyright information, and can be easily added to most files from within the application used to create or view it.
  • For audio files, using a program such as iTunes is an easy way to include these details with audio files.
  • The information can also be easily added to PDF files using most PDF viewer applications [4]

Further reading on digital preservation


  1. PDFs should be created in either version 1.4 or 1.7. See for further details.
  2. MusicXML is owned by MakeMusic and freely available for license under open, royalty-free use.
  3. See for a list of all available sound formats listed by the Library of Congress.
  4. For help on embedding metadata in a PDF using Adobe Acrobat, please see - 7c34.w.html.