Digital Humanities and Medieval Music

Last week (19–21 March 2014) I attended the 2nd Digital Humanities Australasia Conference “Expanding Horizons” at the University of Western Australia, Perth (Australia). The content of the conference certainly expanded my horizons, demonstrating the current vibrancy of the digital humanities (DH) in Australia. Between the torrent of “show and tell” presentations about new and existing DH projects, fascinating but geeky information about metadata standards, data conservation and database design, there were interesting papers concerning including Anthony F. Beavers’s keynote on Computational Philosophy and digital humanities as an more efficient extension of existing research methodologies and tools, and Toby Burrows on what I would call the epistemic foundations of current approaches in digital humanities in earlier philosophy, mathematics and socio-economic history. Music research had a modest but healthy representation at the conference, with one entire session devoted to “Music” (in which we presented) and several other papers on music and closely related topics scattered through out the program.

The conference provided a great opportunity for John Stinson OAM and I to report on our recent collaboration efforts. John is a pioneer in musicology: his La Trobe Medieval Music Database (MMDB) debuted in the early years of the internet age (Gopher in 1993, web HTML in 1994) as the first medieval music catalogue online, freely available. He was also responsible for developing in the mid 1980s a computer program named Scribe for encoding medieval music notation, namely chant notation and measured music notation of the the 14th century. Some of the data from Scribe data found its way into the MMDB’s melody search engine, but the original data generated by the Scribe software has remained locked away in a proprietary data format for the last 25 years. As part of a larger project aimed at developing digital  tools for musicologists, Stinson and I have been busy converting Scribe data into a new non-proprietary format specifically designed for not just score representations but research applications. After reviewing current projects using non-proprietary data schema for encoding music notation, we settled on the schema of Music Encoding Initiative (MEI). This schema, begun by Roland Perry in 2000, has been steadily gaining momentum over the last 14 years, with significant milestones in 2007, 2009 and every year since 2011 (see the MEI website for more details). Although there are several non-proprietary music encoding schemata that have appeared in the last 15 years, questions over their maintenance and limited application instead recommend MEI as a current schema that is supported by a vibrant global community of musicologists and computer scientists.

So John and I have been at work writing a computer program to convert Scribe data to a new MEI-compliant data schema that we call NeoScribe with a view to eventually releasing more than 6000 pieces of encoded music files of chant and polyphony to the research community for attributed use in future research. While MEI already has modules that partly support the encoding of chant notation and basic mensural music notation, we soon discovered that they were not sufficient for encapsulating the range of music notation data present in Scribe data files. A new module that extends the “Neume Notation” and “Mensural Notation” modules of MEI was required. One thing that encouraged us in this endeavour is the stated view of the MEI project team that MEI’s modular nature invited researchers to add other modules that addressed their specific requirements. In short, Stinson and I present a paper at the DHA2014 conference entitled “Towards an Open Access Standard for Encoded Medieval Music Notation: NeoScribeXML”, whose abstract ran as follows:

In 1983 Margaret Manion and John Stinson embarked upon an investigation of early fourteenth-century Dominican liturgical chant manuscripts in Perugia. One of the challenges for Stinson was to assemble a body of data that facilitated the computer-assisted study of this music and its notation. At that time, no software was capable of encoding late medieval music notation. The software needed to be memory efficient and able to be used in archives on a “portable” computer. The resulting DOS program Scribe, developed in collaboration with Brian Parish, debuted in 1984 and was marketed from 1988 to musicologists and music departments. Scribe permitted researchers to encode every meaningful mark on each page of a music manuscript and produce an on-screen representation of the music notation in both medieval and modern notation. Stinson designed Scribe to include context sensitive information for the analysis of musical, palaeographical and scribal features in the original notation. By 1990 Stinson and his assistants had encoded a complete annual cycle of liturgical chant and a generous selection of complex 14th-century Italian secular music. Even though Scribe continues to run on computers in an emulated DOS environment, the growth of Digital Humanities, linked open data and online collaboration offers a series of new opportunities for the sharing and re-use of encoded medieval music notation data. For securing Scribe‘s future in eResearch, we have adopted a new XML-based format: NeoScribeXML. All existingScribe data has been migrated to NeoScribeXML and an ODD Schema of the format drafted. As part of a global community-driven initiative towards creating libraries of linked open music notation data, we have implemented NeoScribeXML as a module within standard of the Music Encoding Initiative (MEI), http://music-encoding.org. MEI. MEI’s principles closely follow those of the Text Encoding Initiative and provide an open access, well documented and extensible framework suitable for music research. In this paper we argue that NeoScribeXML provides an important extension of the MEI standard for encoding early music notation and for music research. We compare our module, which draws upon more than 30 years of experience in encoding medieval music notation in Scribe and our combined expertise in music palaeography, with the two existing MEI modules which offer incomplete solutions for encoding early music notation. We conclude by outlining NeoScribeXML’s role in open access and massively collaborative early music eResearch over the next decade.

I was also able to demonstrate one of the early outcomes of our research, namely a command line tool for converting Scribe files to NeoScribe files. A copy of the open source code for this tool can be found on GitHub. We are not making any claims that this initial release of alpha version software is fit for widespread use and that the data it currently produces reflects the eventual definition of the MEI NeoScribe schema. It is untested alpha software. Use at your own risk if you can get the source code to compile on your platform. A beta release will occur in the next 12 months or so, including documentation for the new NeoScribe schema for those happy to wait. While the original user base of Scribe was small, we anticipate the Scribe2NeoScribe tool will be beneficial to the owners of additional data encoded by musicologists who have used Scribe in the past, and perhaps to data curators who might wish to make old data once again useful and able to be read on modern computers.

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