When Music Meets Technology

By Labiba Faiza, Outreach Assistant, ROAAr

One rarely hears of a mix between medieval music and cutting-edge software development. Last Tuesday, however, ROAAr joined the worlds of music and technology to host “Search and ye shall find: Medieval music manuscripts in the digital age,” resulting in a pleasant evening of chant performance and discussion on the digitization of medieval manuscript music. The focal point of the talk was the Single Interface for Music Score Searching and Analysis (SIMSSA) project, an initiative that involves programming computers to identify musical symbols in digital scans of musical scores to create a streamlined forum of materials from libraries and museums around the world.

The event began with greetings from Professor Julie Cumming of the Schulich School of Music, who is also a co-investigator in the SIMSSA project. She regaled the audience with an overview of the fascinating history of medieval chant music. What made the event truly immersive was that attendees did not only learn about medieval chants but also heard them live. The presentation was complemented by intervals of live performances of Marian chants found in medieval chant manuscripts owned by McGill. The group of 13 talented singers, composed of McGill music students, graduate students, and librarians, was conducted by Professor Cumming herself.

Librarian Anne-Marie Holland then spoke about McGill’s impressive manuscript collection. Did you know that there are 250 European medieval manuscripts in McGill Library’s collection? Fifty of these books and fragments contain medieval music. Many of them are publicly accessible on the Internet Archive thanks to the library’s digitization laboratory spearheaded by Greg Houston and his team.

Transitioning from medieval music history to digitization technology, Prof. Ichiro Fujinaga, principal investigator of the SIMSSA project, simplified the technological elements of the project for listeners. He broke down the functioning of Optical Music Recognition (OMR) technology, which would enable users to search sheet music in a database, and explained the many uses of such software. In his words, “it would be like Google Books, but without Google”. From the first published digital scan of a music sheet in 1970 to the intricate separation of staff, notes, and text through deep learning, music digitization has certainly come a long way.

Prof. Fujinaga’s talk was followed by a demonstration of OMR technology being applied to musical manuscripts from a user’s perspective, by Geneviève Gates-Panneton, a lead tester for the SIMSSA project.

One may wonder, why search chant? The benefits of musical searches are numerous, as explained by Anna De Bakker. She also pointed out that chants are not just about music, they also tell important stories that are crucial to understanding medieval society.

The night concluded with a performance of a complex, richly mellismatic chant “Felix namque, Responsory for Matins for All Saints.”

To learn more about the SIMSSA project and hear the aforementioned chant performances, watch the event recording on the Schulich School of Music’s YouTube channel.

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