Borrowing from the world of bio-computing – and using algorithms originally designed to analyze strings of genetic code – Western professor Kate Helsen is revolutionizing the study of medieval music.
Big data from the 21st century: meet the sacred songs of the monks from the 11th.
“There are lots of different questions to ask and problems to crack,” not the least of which is what these chants can tell us about time and culture and the origins of written music, the Don Wright Faculty of Music professor said.
To medieval worshipers, the sacred, sung prayers punctuated the rhythm of each day. And while each chant told an oral story, each also evolved into notated manuscripts with nuanced patterns, modes and grammar – musical formulas – that communicated complex ideas.
Gaining a deeper understanding of those ideas adds colour and creates context to a worship form that has shaped most Western music in the intervening 1,000 years.
Until now, the problem has been how to divine common patterns from among the genre’s vast tapestry of millions of chants – with variations dependent on geography, time, sacred purpose and monastic order.
Even internationally renowned medievalist music scholar Andrew Hughes had to use a “collect and count” method of examining manuscripts one at a time, writing phrases on reams of cue cards and then comparing them in search of important themes.
Now, programming language enlisted by Helsen can multiply that work exponentially, in a fraction of the time. Her team uses software that can select and analyze information from late-middle-ages chant projects uploaded into computer databases – something she calls a ‘Chant Bot.’
Helsen can direct the computer program to analyze specific segments and features, or look for similarities or differences, among a database of about 6,000 chants.
Like a modest version of a Rosetta Stone, this big-data analysis introduces medievalists and music scholars to a whole new way of thinking about the language of chants.
“If you treat it like linguistics, like DNA strands, then you can decide the questions of what you’re looking for. For example, if a phrase begins a certain way, where might it progress and where might it resolve or introduce the next phrase? What grammar will precede the phrase and what follows it?
“It can help reveal what we’ve missed in our assumptions about what is obvious and what isn’t. It analyzes more chants, more accurately and more quickly than we could ever do in our lifetimes and it provides some objectivity,” Helsen said.
In the future, these huge volumes of manuscripts can be indexed and query-searched for an infinite number of features, and can move from data to insight.
“No one else is doing this specific thing. We’re providing a roadmap of what to do once that door is open. There’s no limit to the number of things you can try to compare.”
It is like extrapolating a forest ecosystem from vast collections of trees, like understanding oceanography by deep-sea fishing.
A graphic representation of 750 chants in a specific mode (scale), for example, shows dense red clusters where melodies are the same, green where they’re similar and blue where they’re dissimilar. A deeper dive could determine if the red clusters represent a single geographic area or perhaps a single composer, Helsen said.
Western mathematician Mark Daley, Special Advisor to the President on Data Strategy, said Helsen is conducting research made possible with the application of big data, interdisciplinary teamwork and scholarly curiosity. “This is using tools designed for another purpose – readapted from computational biology and linguistics processing, bioinformatics – and capturing its DNA in musical form.”
Helsen said the process could also be used across genres and in cultures where musical scales differ. While she believes it a fallacy that music itself is an international language, “the need to be musical is indeed universal,” said Helsen.
She is also a leader, with Music doctoral student Heidi Wall, of Huron Choralschola, a group of Huron University College student chanting plainsong at Evensong and Compline services this fall. The next contemplative performance takes place on Oct. 28.
Enjoying, practising and understanding music is part of what makes us more human and what makes this scholarship valuable, Helsen said.
“You can decide to contribute to the mechanics and systems and the progress of life, and you can contribute to understanding better what makes life worth living. I really want to study more about what makes life worth living.”