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IR for Contemporary Music: What the Musicologist Needs

Alain Bonardi

Abstract of an invited talk given at the International Symposium on Music Information Retrieval (MUSIC IR 2000), Plymouth, MA., October 23-25, 2000.
© Ircam 2000

Active listening is the core of musical activity

Listening does not only concern receiving musical information. On the contrary, it is “active” and based on a set of interactions between listeners and musical documents—including automatic music information research and extraction—so as to discover intentions. This recognition process is based on the observation of regularities and rules, in order to build “forms” from all indications, information and redundancies. The listener interprets all the signs that are meaningful for him as intentions, attributed to the composer.

Features of computer assisted listening

Let us specify further the active listening situation for the musicologist, taking for example the consultation of a document in such a digital library as IRCAM’s. The musicologist is facing a computer screen, while handling scores and books. This terminal allows him, among many other possibilities, to listen to music, to access musical data bases and hypermedia analyses. The musicologist is handling several devices on several media at the same time.

First of all, the listener needs a framework that takes him/her into account. The purpose is to set the conditions of possibility of listening by restricting the heuristics of “forms”. It is therefore necessary to set a listening framework for the musicologist, to assist him in discovering the “intentions” of music. The main feature of this listening environment is thus its capacity to enable its user to vary the music representation. In the same way that working on a musical piece leads us either to read it silently or to sol-fa, or to hum it, or to play it, the musicologist’s environment must enable rapid changes of the representation of abstract objects.

This is very important: a critical part of the analysis work consists in associating varied representations and contexts. Its purpose is the emergence of meaning from numerous and dissimilar elements that views imagined by the musicologist manage to reconcile. Musical databases help weave these links. In such an environment as the IRCAM Digital Library, we can either:

Musicology and contemporary music

We use here the expression “contemporary music” for Western art-tradition music written since 1945. However this definition is controversial, and a lot of ambiguity remains in identifying works that belong to it. But it avoids, at least provisionally, the stumbling block of the stylistic definition.

To characterize it, we use the musicologist’s point of view, with his/her tools, either computerized or not. The musicologist is at the same time a listener and a composer, since analyzing a piece a music leads to “rewriting” it.

The first difficulty the musicologist faces in contemporary music is the confusion in listening. Looking for reference marks, the listener is in a way considerably free, but he is deprived from the listening guiding towards intentions we evoked before. Let us examine the consequences of this confusion in terms of automatic research of musical information:

A synthesis of the musicologist’s needs

Our first remark is that the choice of the contemporary catalogue does not modify the nature of the musicologist’s work nor his/her purposes. However it seems that this task is more difficult and less systematic for contemporary music. The musicologist must set together by himself “formal filters” enabling him to account for the composer’s intention, starting from directories of simple form bearing elements and classical structures.

We state that the musicologist’s workstation must have the following features:

Examples of implementation in IRCAM projects

Two European projects including IRCAM partnership answer part of these expectations:

There is still much work remaining to propose a coherent set of software and devices dedicated to contemporary music.

Suggested Readings

[Berio 1981]
Berio, Luciano, 1983. Intervista sulla musica, a cura di Rossana Dalmonte, Roma, Bari, Laterza.
[Lerdahl 1988]
Lerdahl, Fred, 1988. « Structure de prolongation dans l’atonalité », in La musique et les sciences cognitives, Bruxelles, Mardaga, pp. 103-135.
[Rousseaux 1990]
Rousseaux, Francis, 1990. Une contribution de l’intelligence artificielle et de l’apprentissage symbolique automatique à l’élaboration d’un modèle d’enseignement de l’écoute musicale, Thèse de doctorat, Université Paris VI.

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