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Distant Listening/Digital Musicology: music21 and Compositional Similarity in the late Middle Ages

General Programming

July 12, 2018

Digital humanities approaches, including Franco Moretti’s influential concept of “distant reading,” have transformed areas of textual scholarship in recent decades, but such ideas have had less of an impact on musicology. There were two reasons for this lack of uptake in music: first, a general dearth of tools for examining hundreds or thousands of musical scores. Second, there were few examples of such approaches’ success in answering difficult questions in music history, necessary to reward the investment of time and energy in the skills in programming to access these techniques. In this talk, Cuthbert, argues that both hurdles have finally been overcome by demonstrating approaches to “distant listening” to musical scores with the music21 toolkit, developed at M.I.T., and its application to finding previously unknown webs of influence, citation, quotation, perhaps even plagiarism, among a repertory of 3,000 musical scores drawn from European sources from 1300–1430, including the identification of over 30 fragmentary musical works previously considered too small or illegible for study.