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Do You Remember MIDI Music Files?

A new article at Motherboard remembers when the MIDI file format became the main way music was shared on the internet “for an incredibly short but memorable period of time…”

[I]n the hunt for additional features, the two primary developers of web browsers during the era — Microsoft and Netscape — added functionality that made audio files accessible when loading websites, whether as background music or as embedded files with a dedicated player. Either way, it was one of the earliest examples of a plug-in that much of the public ran into — even before Flash. In particular, Microsoft’s Internet Explorer supported it as far back as version 1.0, while Netscape Navigator supported it with the use of a plug-in and added native support starting in version 3.0. There was a period, during the peak of the Geocities era, where loading a website with a MIDI file was a common occurrence.

When Geocities was shut down in 2019, the MIDI files found on various websites during that time were collected by The Archive Team. The Internet Archive includes more than 51,000 files in The Geocities MIDI Collection. The list of songs, which can be seen here, is very much a time capsule to a specific era. Have a favorite song from 1998? Search for it in here, sans spaces, and you’ll probably find it…! They sound like a musical time capsule, and evoke memories of a specific time for many web surfers of the era. “Even in an age of high-quality MP3s, the chintzy sounds of MIDI files resonate on the Web,” writer Douglas Wolk wrote for Spin in 2000, immediately adding the reason: “They play on just about anything smarter than a Tupperware bowl, and they’re also very small….”

The thing that often gets lost with these compositions of popular songs done in MIDI format is that they’re often done by people, either for purposes of running a sound bank (which might come in handy, for example, with karaoke), or by amateurs trying to recreate the songs they enjoy or heard on the radio…. [I]ts moment in the sun reflected its utility during a period of time when the demand for multimedia content from the internet was growing — but the ability for computers to offer it up in a full-fat format was limited. (Stupid modems….) MIDI is very much not dead — far from it. Its great strength is the fact that a MIDI-supporting iPad can communicate with some of the earliest MIDI-supporting devices, such as the Commodore 64.

Using a browser plugin called Jazz-Plugin, their writer even re-discovered John Roache’s Ragtime MIDI Library. “[I]t occurred to me that I should spend more time writing about one of the things that makes the Web so special — labors of love. Unlike any medium before it, the Web gives people with unusual talents and interests a chance to share their passions with fellow enthusiasts — and with folks like me who just happen to drop by.”

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