Posterity? What Posterity?
Shortly after I graduated from the Cleveland Institute of Music, I was hired by a local church music director to recopy some choral works by a couple of obscure Baroque composers; I believe their names were Kittel and Krebs. (I remember thinking of them at the time as Kibble and Bits.) It remains the only time in my career so far when my conservatory-mandated knowledge of soprano and mezzo-soprano clefs was useful; one of the principal aims of the recopying was to put the higher parts in treble clef.
My employer being a forward-looking sort, I was asked to deliver the finished product as a file in the new, then-state-of-the-art music notation software, which I think was called Professional Composer. The printout, this being the mid 1980s, was dot matrix.
An article in the New York Times about the challenges of maintaining technologically-based art got me remembering those days. The article is about a piece of early Internet art whose platform is long gone and whose code is buggy, but even those of us who are still writing acoustic music for live performers make our sheet music using software these days. Kittel and Krebs’ music was around to be recopied after three hundred years; I don’t know what vault it had been sitting in, or where my employer had gotten it, but it was there. By contrast, my version of it from twenty-five years ago is certainly unreadable by today’s computers, and I doubt the dot-matrix printouts have held up all that well either.
I started using notation software for my own music in the early 1990s. The files for some of the pieces from those years are already corrupted (as are their backups). If I don’t have printouts of them, they’re gone for good.
Will anyone be able to read my music three hundred years from now? (Leaving aside the question of whether they would want to.) While I print my music out on pretty good quality paper, I doubt it would be considered archival quality. The digital files can be copied ad infinitum, but even if make it down to the 24th century uncorrupted, it’s a pretty safe bet that neither Finale nor the Mac OS will be around in anything like their current forms.
What about PDF files? It’s just barely possible that those will turn out to be universal in whatever our digital future holds, but I wouldn’t hold my breath. By then our descendants will all be accessing their cloud-memories via their brain-implants anyway, so even a music historian might be stymied by something as archaic as a file designed to give the appearance of a piece of paper (smoothed-out tree pulp, their archives will tell them).
Audio files might have a better chance. Even if they do get those brain implants working, I doubt they’ll be feeding music directly into the auditory nerve and bypassing the eardrums. But much of the audio content on the web is in mp3 format, which will undoubtedly be obsolete within our lifetimes as storage and bandwidth both get cheaper. CD players won’t last the century, and no one really knows how durable CDs are over the long run anyway.
But perhaps future music historians will have specialized tools, virtual machines running in their skullware which will allow them to open reconstructed, de-corrupted Finale or Sibelius files directly in their visual cortices. On the other hand, maybe the survivors of the apocalypse will only be able to access paper sheet music, which they will then promptly burn to keep warm.
Ah well. I wasn’t really writing music for posterity, anyway. I don’t know that any composer ever really did (except maybe Brahms).