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Ancient Music, Modern Methods

HALIFAX – A Dalhousie professor is part of a team working on research that could transform the study of music.

Jennifer Bain, chair of the music department at Dalhousie, is working with other musicologists and computer scientists to develop computer software to analyze medieval music.

The project is called the optical neume recognition project.

In the late 10th century, musical notations that denoted notes, pitch and rhythm were often written above lyrics in neumes.

As music notation developed, composers diverged from this model and used a five-line musical staff.

The researchers are developing software that can read the neumes, and Bain’s contribution involved helping create a legend of the neumes that the software could recognize.

“When we want to analyze [music], we’re trying to figure out which pieces of music are similar, which are different, how do they fit with the text, are there similarities between different kinds of pieces of music from different parts of the year?” Bain said.

Bain said there can often be hundreds to thousands of neumes in a manuscript.

“That’s a lot of data. It’s really helpful to use computers to help us gather things,” she said.

Music students like Patrick Salah said the process of analyzing medieval music right now can be tedious.

“You’d have to be a monk singing music for years before you really know all 500 manuscripts well enough so you’re able to draw connections between them on your own,” he said.

The software will make the ancient music, which is fragile, more accessible and easier to research.

“The level of data explodes. In the past, before developing this kind of technology, researchers would often just focus on two to three manuscripts. Your field is very narrow. You might come to conclusions thinking it’s applicable to the broader repertoire,” Bain said.

“This huge amount of data [from the software] is going to give us a much better understanding both of how the notation was developed but also about the repertoire and what was important to people.”

Salah said the software being developed will help him better compare and contrast music.

“I want to see how many instances things occurs across this whole body of music. The computer is going to find it for me rather than me going through hundreds, thousands even of scores and finding those myself,” he said.

Bain said the software will lead to more research in the field as well as more understanding about how music evolved.

“We’re better able to say, this melody started here in Venice then it moved to [here] then it moved from there to this other region,” she said.

The software will be tested in the spring by Bain and the other musicologists involved in the project.