Digitizing Medieval Music

Medieval musical manuscript

How do you digitize music dating from before musical notation? Becky Ferreira reports in Vice that the Optical Neume Recognition Project seeks to build a search engine for sifting through the millions of written “neumes,” which were primitive riffs on notation common in prayer books from the Medieval era.

Ferreira tells us:

This project, which is part of a wider Canadian-led effort to digitize and democratize musical prints and manuscripts, could have implications for fields beyond musicology. For instance, Helsen is interested in the sheer neurological capacity of the monks, and the ways in which they honed their memorization techniques.

“Basically, we are mining these melodies for a better understanding of how the brain breaks down, thinks about and reconstructs melody year after year after year in a monastic context because that’s what was important to them,” she said. “And by developing a searchable database, not unlike Google Books, we are basically creating an electric monk. A device that knows all of the melodies. It’s as though a monk from 1,000 years ago walked into the room and started talking about music. It’s all there.”

Researchers Are Digitizing Ancient Monk Chants Into a Massive Database.


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