Eleanor Selfridge-Field and Edmund Correia, Jr.
© 1994 Center for Computer Assisted Research in the Humanities
Reproduced by the IEEE Technical Committee on Computer Generated Music by permission

Musical Information in Musicology

Musicology, the academic study of music, is interpreted to mean many different things. To those in the field, musicology is a discipline with a hundred years of its own history and traditions. As it was originally conceived by German and Austrian scholars of the nineteenth century, the discipline would have two branches historical and systematic.

Historical musicology has concentrated on the art music of Western Europe. In the 1970s and 1980s there was a great surge in ethnomusicological activity, which deals not only with the music of diverse cultures but also with a growing interest in the musics (as scholars now say) of oral traditions. At the present time there is some effort to reinterpret even the music of the European Middle Ages as more properly belonging to oral than to written tradition.

Systematic musicology is somewhat misnamed, since, in the German intellectual tradition, whatever is not historical becomes "systematic" by default. In the Anglo-Saxon tradition, systematic musicology has incorporated studies in music theory and analysis and more recently it has turned much attention to perceptual and cognitive studies, as well as to the study of non-Western music.

Standing outside both traditions is the current infatuation with studies of music informed by presumed analogies with textual criticism, with the deconstruction of historical dogma, and with the dissolution of canonical repertories i.e., the notion that the "classics" are arbitrary choices promoted by past cultures for social and political reasons. Although none of these activities requires much direct involvement with actual music, all of them reside within the discipline called "musicology."

The greatest impetus to computer applications in music has come from a fourth sphere of activity music bibliography. Librarians are constantly in need of tools for identifying tunes that are similar but have different names, and conversely for differentiating tunes with a common name that are actually different. The interest among historical musicologists and analysts in identifying paraphrase, resettings, and the like has always been strong, since some of the greatest subtlety of expression and richest meanings in Western music are conferred by musical reference and allusion.

Historical, systematic, and bibliographical studies do, for the most part, require direct involvement with actual music, and for the most part with music as notated. Much of the work of historical musicology over the past century has been based on editions of music carefully prepared to reflect precision and completeness and, in most cases, uniformity of approach. Whereas performing editions of music concentrate on practical choices, critical editions concentrate on informing the "reader" of all the choices that are possible in the interpretation. Historical musicology also engaged in a great range of corollary activities concerned with elaborating the history of composers, performers, musical institutions, and other cultural entities that have influenced the development of music.

In relation to actual music, studies in music theory and analysis require the same general kinds of information about substance but these are often prioritized in some different ways. In general, rather greater consideration must be given to coordination of aural and written information. Accentuation, for example, which is easily perceived by the listener, is of critical importance for studies of folk music concordances, of text underlay in composed music, and of perceptual studies concerned with the memorability of music, but it is not "written" into scores and can therefore not be systematically studied without some special effort to transcribe it.

Vis-à-vis the rise of computer capabilities over the past decade, the resolution of inherent problems in the representation of music on a plane sufficient for academic study has proceeded at a pace that may seem slow to some. In fact, however, those engaged in the development of musical applications are faced with problems that have yet to be confronted in the domain of text applications. Almost all resources that deal with large quantities of text, for example, do so on the basis of written texts. Written texts that may be coordinated with oral recitation by user- specified "speakers" via the computer and serve as the basis for analytical studies taking into account accentuation, pace, patterns of content, and their coordinates, for example, have yet to appear. In particular, there has been no effort in the domain of text applications to enable the "performance" texts by speakers with appropriate spoken "inflections" or "accents" to aid in the authenticity of the result. How might one simulate the speech of Shakespeare's time? And how would one coordinate the qualities of speech of different characters in creating an integral performance? These are the kinds of questions that must routinely be considered in music applications that take account of timbral information and coordinate it with information about pitch, rhythm, structure, accent, and the like. For this reason there is some possibility that the paradigms established in music applications for coordination of graphic, sound, and intellectual aspects of information may come to play an important role in text applications of the future.

Unlike text in its relation to the alphabet, the so-called "language" of music is neither stable nor closed. The English language can be represented by 26 characters and the Arabic system of numeric representation by 10 ciphers. The number of symbols involved in written music is open-ended and far greater. To take one untoward example, ornamentation signs used in France in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries number into the hundreds. The greatest problem in the written expression of music is that many symbols take their meaning from the graphic context. A dot of prolongation affects the duration of a note, while a (staccato) dot of articulation affects playing technique.

We commonly speak of something called Common Music Notation (CMN) to mean that general body of symbols that is required in scores from the "period of common practice" (i.e., the sixteenth through the nineteenth centuries), but visual grammars varied somewhat over time and place and still vary from publisher to publisher. Almost all sense of a cumulative "development" of notation is lost when the practices from the Middle Ages and the twentieth century are factored in. Calls are made for the "reform" of Western notation to better represent music of recent decades. Notations for non-Western oral traditions are still in the process of invention. In sum, there is little reason to suppose that written notation is perfected, when it is obviously dynamic.

Most applications have been concerned with practical applications, especially the creation of scores and parts, the capture of performances on electronic keyboards, and the arrangement of music to take advantage of simulated timbres. Very rapid progress has been made in the sphere of programs for printing music, although among the roughly 100 programs that have been brought to market the number that support the broad range of capabilities required in critical editions of scholarly quality is few.

It is hardly possible to define a minimum list of requirements for musical information intended for scholarly applications, since both repertories and the questions asked of them vary so greatly. Some recurrently mentioned needs include complete and unambiguous descriptions of such attributes as pitch, duration, instrumentation, and part synchronization as they appear in sound and as they appear in graphic representations. Novices would assume such elements to be logically the same in both contexts, but often enough there are minor variations, and inconsistencies within domains are also rife.

A substantial discussion of these issues appears in the Handbook of Musical Codes, forthcoming from Oxford University Press.

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