Listening: Extracting Musical Data Points

“Instead of mindlessly extracting—data points for statistical analysis, Clio intelligently adapts its attention to key aspects… —just like you and I do.”

If this is truly “just like you and I do,” then the study of music should at some level be a honing of “intelligently adapting [oneself] to focus on the aspects most critical to the mood.” Perhaps I could make this more explicit in my own teaching. (June 11, 2011)

These were my initial thoughts in response to first reading about Clio from a blog post about how a computer might model the way we listen to music. While I didn’t know it at the time, the link was shared by one of the members of the management team, Alison Conrad, who I met at a music conference in Canada about a little over a year ago. It’s worth reading about the incredible technology that the researchers have developed for the Clio platform: “Clio goes beyond the limitations of categories, cultural context, and keywords to provide comprehensive search results and personalized playlists based on the intrinsic qualities of music. Every song is treated equally regardless of popularity, style or genre, providing the highest quality music discovery experience available today.”

While the technology is fascinating, I was much more interested in the fact that the model of the way we listen to music is not always the foundation for the way that I–and, I would suggest, most others–teach music theory and listening skills. I would bet that most music students graduate without ever learning which aspects of the music are the most critical to the mood. They may know that Roman numeral analysis would likely be unhelpful on a piece by Webern or that specific terminology appropriate to fugal analysis will not be applicable to a typical minuet. Yet, how well could our students take a piece of music and know what the most salient features create the mood or impression, regardless of style? For that matter, how many well-trained musicians could articulate these thought patterns?

It occurred to me that this question had really sunk into my thinking when I started introducing our listening assignments for the my Counterpoint course this semester at Mississippi College: Bach’s Das Wohltemperierte Klavier. Without quite realizing the source of my lecture topic, I began speaking about how we listen to Bach’s preludes in a different way than his fugues. Generally speaking, we experience the preludes as an extended harmonic progression that fully establishes a particular key.* While we are interested in the harmonic design of the fugue, it is extremely important to focus on the melodic development and contrapuntal interaction. Conversely, the preludes are more likely to be experienced as figuration without melody. It might also be argued that this is the way Bach thought while composing given that we have sketches of some preludes as pure harmonic progressions.

If we listen to specific pieces by focusing on salient musical data points, it would seem that analysis would be most productive if it began by ascertaining what approach or technique would be best suited to the most important data points. My Counterpoint lecture was only the beginning of what I am sure will be a transformative process my teaching will undergo as I consider how our listening might be modeled in our analysis, just as it has been technologically modeled by the researchers at Clio. I’m excitedly looking forward to my next opportunity to teach Graduate Projects in Theory & Analysis as I anticipate structuring the course as a walk through various ways of extracting musical data points through listening and analysis in hopes that my students will “intelligently adapt… to focus on the aspects most critical to the mood.”

*As an aside, I introduced the idea of a musical prelude as “fixing to play in a key” as I considered one of the more intriguing expressions I have learned in Mississippi. I had my own theories about where the phrase “fixing to” came about, but I discovered that this saying has a rather reputable etymology. The word fix was introduced in the 14th century in the sense of “set one’s eyes on something,” from the Latin fixus that meant “immovable, settled or established.” During the next few centuries, this  sense of fixing something into place ahead of time took on the 18th-century meaning of  “arrange or make preparations for something.” By the mid-19th century the word was used in the sense implied above as simply “about to do something.”

1 Reader Comment

  1. Meredith Warf

    Love the blog. So true. Thanks for sharing!

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