The Past, Present, and Future of the Plaine and Easie Code

Authors: Hankinson, Andrew / Ward, Jennifer

Date: Thursday, 7 September 2023, 2:15pm to 3:45pm

Location: Main Campus, L 1.202 <campus:note>


The Plaine and Easie Code System (PAE) for music notation had its beginnings in the 1960s as a means of communicating music notation using alphanumeric characters. Its primary use has been in the capture of “incipits”, or the first few opening measures of a musical piece for the purposes of positive identification of a work based on its musical content. Since its introduction it has undergone several revisions and modifications, and adoption by the international library community. Today it sees daily use in the Répertoire International des Sources Musicales (RISM) project as the basis for capture of thematic incipits, which currently number over 1.4 million individual entries.

In 1964, Barry S. Brook and Murray Gould published Notating Music with Ordinary Typewriter Characters (A Plaine and Easie Code System for Musicke). This was the first paper outlining this coding scheme. In the years that followed, Brook presented the code at international meetings and promoted PAE through publications. Throughout, he sought to reach people in both musicology and librarianship while appealing to the small but growing community interested in computer applications for the humanities. He continuously appealed to RISM—then, as now, the world’s largest cataloguing project for written music—to include music incipits in their inventories. In the early 1970s Brook succeeded in convincing RISM to adopt PAE for music incipits. From here on, RISM’s cataloguing efforts steered all further publications and dissemination of the code.

In 2022, the RISM Digital and Editorial Centers launched RISM Online (, a new way to search the RISM data and featuring a new incipit search system. This incipit search provides notation-centric search facilities, both with a keyboard input system and through direct PAE input as a query language. As part of making this data more publicly visible, it was necessary to undertake two projects to help improve data quality for the RISM incipits and the digital tools that enable their use in search and display.

The first project, in collaboration with the Centre for Digital Music Documentation at the Academy of Sciences and Literature in Mainz, sought to improve consistency and overall data quality in the RISM incipit data. The resulting correction work highlighted problems in the PAE specification itself, so a second project focused on making improvements in this area. This has taken the form of editorial improvements aimed at making the PAE code easier for software developers and other digital tool makers to use this notation format, correctly, in their own system, through the use of normative language, clear examples, and some backwards-incompatible changes to the encoding schema. This will culminate in a new version of the PAE specification.

Our talk will cover a history of this innovative, but often overlooked, music notation encoding scheme, our current efforts to improve it. We will present the results of our projects for improving RISM incipit data, and discuss new tools, applications, and directions for this venerable technology.

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