The Variations Digital Music Library

The Variations Digital Music Library is funded in part by IMLS and spearheaded by Jon Dunn and his team at Indiana University. Variations is designed for academic study as part of a university course or scholarly research at a library, so access to the records is limited. The software is free, but access to the digital content follows library access permissions. For every record, the copyright is visible in the footer. Variations was created in 1996. Variations2 was deployed in 2005, and the most recent open source project has been available since 2009. In Variations3, other universities received technology help to set up Variations including The Ohio State University, Swarthmore College, and more.

I analyzed Variations with Indiana University (IU)’s online music collection. It contains more than 10,000 recordings and hundreds of scores. At IU, the full collection (course reserves, general collection, and special collections) is available at music library computers; outside the music library, users must be enrolled in a class requiring Variations use and have an installed Variations client. Anyone can download the open-source Sourceforge demo program that includes access to a limited number of digital music files. This application provides advanced tools and an easy to use graphical user interface for any library’s music collection. The audience for this project is college teachers, university students, and researchers.


Content and metadata

Each university owns original content. Variations does not use Digital Rights Management (DRM). The project ingests, stores, and retrieves mp4 and DjVu (open file format designed to store scanned documents) files from the digital catalog. The Variations desktop Java client connects to the specific university’s Variations cataloging server, which accesses a MySQL database of metadata. The Variations client ingests the mp4 files, and Z39.50 protocol communicates with the catalog to import available catalog metadata information. Additional metadata can be searched from the CD, FreeDB, MusicBrainz, Variations, or Wav Markers. The metadata model of FRBR-FRAD allows easier linking of points in any recording of a musical work to any notational representation of it, and allows work-level discovery of recordings and scores. Music metadata is transformed from MARC into FRBR and RDF, thus providing legacy metadata into linked data that more easily integrates with the semantic web. Variations has their own Schemas (listed in Resources).


Variations is a desktop digital music library and learning system. In university libraries, these programs are on library computers. The Variations Scherzo search interface is opened on the user computer, where a user selects a piece of music. There are three types of views: audio listening, digital scores, and linked recordings with scores. The selected music file record opens in a new browser window including links to each musical section. These links then open the appropriate view in the Variations application.

The left navigation pane includes a link that brings up related records links, for example to the audio listening record or score view. The only external link is the IU full catalog record. Variations does not include contextual information about the material, but still is adequate and scholarly. Music files are album-based so users see tracks in album context. Variations streams mp4s an allows users to bookmark passages in each song or music file. Songs can be added to playlists to create a playback listening drill. Users can view digitized scores, annotate them, and save the annotations. For songs that are available with a score, playback includes automatic page turning of the score and allows navigation to specific measures in the music. The Timeline tool may be used to create a diagram of the formal structure of a piece of music. The visual learning components of the tool allow students to see formal structures in musical scores. Audio files can be browsed and saved to playlists.

The graphical user interface includes intuitive buttons and controllers that digital music users would expect from iTunes or other music players. A simple slider bar with vertical marks invites users to click and drag the player marker to navigate the song they’ve selected. An outline view of the CD or symphony with track listings is also included. Scores are viewable with zoom, page skip, and similar controls to a PDF viewer. This is new tool that works well, with advanced functionality that users can immediately appreciate, so I don’t have any other improvement suggestions. As a remote user, I had trouble with time-outs in the system, had to keep logging in so I would suggest improvements to the technical infrastructure and to keep access to the system open per login, or a warning of inactivity before logging off.

Researchers might want to know historic context of the piece while using Variations. Variations remains in a separate application window and research in the catalog for more books and articles can be conducted in a browser window.

Value added as an online resource

The benefit of using the Variations digital music library is the user-friendly interfaces and access to digital music records. It could exist offline if the user’s computer was directly connected to a local copy of the database. Online access is the added benefit—with many more universities participating in online courses, IU could have an online, asynchronous music study class and give students full access to their catalog to complete assignments. This is not an integrated collection—it is a special collection, with special access requirements that lives outside the main library catalog holdings. I see many music groups or conservatories that would appreciate access to other university collections. The program doesn’t suggest how a group sets up access to their users, so it is possible that a university allows open access to the general public for the records they digitize.


The “Using Variations” part of the User Guide is very complete and described well. However, it is confusing because the above “About Variations” part is not complete. However, the project description page is full of video tutorials, PowerPoint presentation slides and audio, and is helpful not only to users but to libraries who need to learn how to install the program, and digitize records for use with Variations.

Symphony no. 7 in A major, op. 92 / Ludwig van Beethoven

I chose the linked score and recording for Symphony no. 7 in A major, op. 92 by Ludwig van Beethoven. The left side pane includes an overview and outline as well as annotation tools. The scanned portions of the score are viewable in the larger, main right side window. You can bookmark sections of the score, and the bookmark icon is then viewable in the navigation slider. Annotation tools include music specific shapes, text fields, drop down fields of musical keys and roman numerals. A user could be a conductor or performer, view the score, take notes, and study the piece. The Variations program allows users to import and export bookmarks, and to save annotations. So, the digital record is preserved and the user can preserve their individual notes independent yet compatible with the Variations system.

Descriptive metadata


Series title




Media type(s): what makes up the record


Musical key

Instrumentation list

Score metadata

Page number

Content type (title page and verso, contents, instrumentation, score pages)

Musical section(Poco sostentuto—Vivace, Allegretto, Presto, Allegro con brio)

Audio metadata

Music measure numbers

Time designation

This document is typical of other linked scores and recording records. The two other types of record formats are the score only, and the audio only. Each has a different interface with access to all the Variations tools including Timeline, Annotation Tools, Bookmarking, Audio controls and Audio/Page Navigation.

I loved listening and reading along with scores in the demo application. There are exciting applications of this program for the larger community, especially for music appreciation. This is definitely a valuable tool to the open source community and supports shared library use of scholarly materials. Digitizing more the linked recordings with scores within each music collection would be a beneficial future next step.


Indiana University. (2005). IU receives national grant to extend its digital music library. Retrieved from

Digital Library Program, Indiana University. (2009). Variations open source webinar. Retrieved from the website on 9/24/12:

Digital Library Program, Indiana University. (2005). Variations 3: An integrated digital library and learning system for the music community. Retrieved from

Digital Library Program, Indiana University. (2011). Variations user guide, version 6.2. Retrieved from

Riley, J., Hunter, C., Colvard, C., Berry, A. (2007). Definition of a FRBR-based metadata model for the Indiana University Variations3 project. Retrieved from

Riley, J., Mullin, C., Colvard, C., Berry, A. (2008). Definition of a FRBR-based metadata model for the Indiana University Variations3 project, phase 2: FRBR group 2&3 entities and FRAD. Retrieved from

Digital Library Program, Indiana University. (2010). XML schema definitions for FRBR, version 1.1. Retrieved from

Washington, M., Notess, M., & Dunn, J. W. (2010, September). Taking Music Metadata from MARC to FRBR to RDF. Paper presented at the International Conference on Dublin Core and Metadata Applications, The Hague, Netherlands.


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