User-Led Approaches (Music)

The emergent popularity of a field of research that is devoted to the analysis of music as a series of acoustic sounds can be largely attributed to the shift from analogue to digital techniques over the last quarter of a century. For the average researcher without recourse to specialist equipment and techniques, the range of analysis tasks that could be accomplished with analogue tape were severely limited. Practically speaking, the user could either listen to the recording or cut it up and splice it. Undoubtedly this is an inaccurate summary in relation to groups engaged in pre-digital era commercial, industrial or scientific sound research, but in the context of academics working in or with university music departments, the restrictions will have been significant. As a result, it is only relatively recently that the history of musicological research has begun to diverge from a focus on the manuscript or ‘hard copy’ version of the musical notation, resulting in a body of research that previously drew extensively on palaeographical and philological methods.

Inevitably, the emergence of increasingly powerful desktop applications has enabled the musicological community to engage with a wide range of technical approaches and in common with most other disciplines, progress towards standardisation of resources and a general acceptance of key tools is broadly still to be realised (with the exception perhaps of XML, which functions as a fundamental encoding system across a wide range of activities). What has undoubtedly made an enormous impact on the field however is the ubiquitous popularity of the MP3 format and the associated hardware and software that was produced in response to the appearance of a compression format that made web transfers of audio files a realistic proposition. As a bottom-up approach to archive building and resource creation, it is clear that software such as iTunes, MusicMatch and Napster and sound editing and recording packages such as Audacity, Pro Tools, Cubase, Wavelab and Garageband, will continue to have an effect on the way that a broad community of users will engage with audio information, from the professional sound engineer using Pro Tools in the context of well equipped studio down to the individual researcher building up an audio study library for personal use on his/her iPod. At the novice level, as an introduction to the principle that digital sound files can be visualised and particular passages identified, selected, edited, looped and adjusted, the waveform view (based on signal output or volume) that all sound editing software packages feature, can be a very instructive and useful overview of the entire audio file (see fig.1).

Fig.1 An audio (mp3) file as represented in AudacityFig.1 An audio (mp3) file as represented in Audacity

Another commonplace technology that has had a significant impact on the discipline, and has been part of the electronic music landscape since the 1980’s, is MIDI (Music Instrument Digital Interface). It is, inherently, an abstracted and incomplete form of musical representation but it continues to play a valuable role as an enabling technology for a very wide range of recording processes and also acts as the data source for simple ‘piano roll’ visualisations of a musical score.

This simplified benchmark representation of the score, involving data about the onset, the intensity (i.e. the velocity and therefore the volume of the keystroke), the pitch and the deterioration of notes, can be useful when analysing similarity and variation between versions of the same piece of music. As a protocol for the transmission of data, the function of MIDI can in fact be applied wherever timed electronic functions need to be applied to equipment that supports the MIDI interface (e.g. show control, theatre lighting and special effects). As later examples will demonstrate, musicology software often seems to take the form of toolkits and suites of tools that are brought together to provide aggregated functionality and in many cases, MIDI is a component part of that methodological approach, much like XML which provides developers with another (more sophisticated) representation and annotation structure.

Syndicate content