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Musical Theme Search Using Incipits
"What's That Song I Just Played?"
by Robbie Rhodes (An Absentminded Performer) (020830 MMDigest)
In his article, "A Ragtime Data Base (RAG TIMES, March 1990), researcher Ed Berlin discusses a computer data base to serve as an "inventory of material" to aid research, and he worries around about what types of data should and shouldn't be included.

I think that, given the right tools, the people that use a system eventually discover for themselves what is and isn't important; the demands of the market will then lead software developers to create better and better tools.

But Ed is certainly on the right path, and I think including an incipit (the first few notes of a theme) is a marvelous idea of his.  If the data base is concerned with pop songs the incipit, or thematic index, for a given song would just have a few bars each of the verse and chorus.  Rags would have three or more themes in the incipits.  Like Ed says, now you can access works by theme.

Just think what that means: you could tell the computer to find the melody that's stumped you!  Oh, how many times I've needed this assistance when I perform a rag and then discover I've forgotten the name of it.  (If I was wise I would always carry with me the thematic index from the German edition of Scott Joplin -- it's indexed just like a Mozart or Schubert folio!)

Well, suppose that we had a data base file for all the rags ever written, good and bad, and that we have a data base management program on our home computer to search the "Rags" file.  The program would be much like any other data base system, but with an important added feature: besides searching for word strings (i.e., seeking a comparison with a word or string of words you just entered), the program could search for theme strings.  That's as handy as having a room full of ragtime fans when I don't know the tune's name.

The accompanying printout shows a hypothetical example of a melody search, in which I ask the computer to find a 4-bar melody that I heard somewhere long ago.  I have a hunch that it's part of an old blues tune, so I load my data base file called "Blues Song Copyrights".

How do I enter the melody into the computer?  By playing it on a simple electronic keyboard/synthesizer connected to the computer via a MIDI adapter.  The computer loudspeaker makes a metronome click at the tempo I selected, and I just start playing.  When I stop, the single-note melody is displayed on the screen and I check it for correctness, both by viewing the "manuscript" display and by "playing back" the notes over the MIDI wire to the little synthesizer.

I also tell the search program to be liberal about syncopation, not knowing if the melody should be notated in straight eighth-note rhythm, triplets or dotted-eighths and sixteenths.

After a few moments (or minutes, maybe) of searching the computer thinks it found a reasonable match, and displays the incipits of the themes for the song named "The Florida Blues".  Well, I wasn't too far off, was I?  I entered the search melody in the key of B-flat, but fortunately the computer ignored the absolute key and concentrated on finding the relative note pattern of the melody (filed in the key of C).

Notice that the correct melody has eight notes in the measure, whereas I had entered a seven-note measure.  The computer decided that I should view a match that was 7/8 correct, and when I looked at it I said "Eureka" and quit the search.

Well, that was pretty neat discovering what song I'd been humming, and of course I want to find a record of the song, so I tell the computer to search for "The Florida Blues" in other data files containing phonograph record titles and piano roll titles.  It finds 5 phono records and 2 piano rolls -- must've been a big hit tune!

My hypothetical computer system example is based on searching a set of multiple, independent files.  The primary file would be the Music Copyright data base, taken from the U.S. Copyright Office file cards and depositions.  It would have the theme incipits, song title, composer, and copyright dales, and any or all of these fields could be searched for.

Secondary files would be used to find additional information about the song, once you've determined the correct title.  The famous "Discography" by Brian Rust would be invaluable for finding phono recordings of the song,  and analogous "Rollographies" have been compiled by piano roll collectors like Mike Montgomery and Richard Riley.

Other auxiliary files could handle the ever-growing minutiae that Ed Berlin is concerned with: there would be a file of "Variant Titles", and of course, the "Index of First Lines" for song words.  We need a big, and expandable, file for "Sheet Music and Covers", which all the sheet music collectors would use and contribute to.

The computer program to perform a thematic search has yet to be published, but it's not an impossible task: I believe that the Center for Computer Research in Music and Acoustics (CCRMA) at Stanford University has done research in the area of musical theme recognition. When music collectors and researchers express enough interest then someone, either a big software house or a garage hacker, will publish the tool that's needed.

The big files of reference data will come, eventually, from dedicated researchers like Brian Rust and Richard Riley who have already entered the data into a computer and are willing to share it.  (Costs are presently unknown.) The "Music Copyrights" data base should be published by Library of Congress, if we can ever get our government to fund the monstrous task of entering the data.  And the rest will come from you and me, entering into our home computers the data from our collections of sheet music, and then swapping copies with friends.  See how it can grow?

To the ambitious ragtimer that wrote Ed Berlin about a ragtime data base, I advise, "Get busy typing!"  Anybody's data base format can be converted to any other format that comes around; the important thing, and the first thing, is to get it into the computer.  Put in as little or as much data/trivia as you wish, and then share it with your friends.  They'll let you know what's missing.

And the realty ambitious ragtimers, equipped with a keyboard and synthesizer and MIDI music programs, can get started entering the incipits for thematic indexes of their favorite songs.

I'm going to begin with the "unknown" rags I enjoy playing -- then I won't have to ask the audience, "What's that song I just played for you?"

Robbie Rhodes
March 27, 1990

(This article was previously published in the newsletters "The Rag Times" and "Remember That Song".)

Example of thematic data search
Search for melody? Y 
Enter melody: 

incipit01.gif (2 kb)
Play MIDI incipit entered? Y    [click here to play MIDI file]
Is the incipit entered okay? Y 

Checking Data File: "Blues Song Copyrights 1900-1942" 
Searching for melody, allowing syncopation ....... 
!! Melody found in incipit 2nd line below. 
Play MIDI incipit found? Y     [click here to play MIDI file]

  SONG TITLE:   The Florida Blues 
incipit02.gif (5 kb)
  COMPOSER:    Wm. King Phillips 
  COPYRIGHT:   1915 by Wm. King Phillips 
  COPYRIGHT:   1917 by Pace & Handy Music Co. 
  COPYRIGHT:   1926 by Handy Bros. Music Co., Inc., New York 

Continue search for melody? N
Search for recordings, sheet music, etc? Y 

Searching for Song Title:  [The] Florida Blues 
Checking Data File: "Discography of Jazz Recordings", by Brian Rust 

  PHONO RECD:  "The Florida Blues", Ford Dabney [orch] 
  PHONO RECD:  "Florida Blues", Dixieland Jug Blowers 
  PHONO RECD:  "Florida Blues", Lemual Fowler [orch] 
  PHONO RECD:  "The Florida Blues", W. C Handy's Orchestra 
  PHONO RECD:  "The Florida Blues", Wilbur Sweatman & His Orch. 

Checking Data File: "Hot Recut Piano Rollography", by Richard Riley 

  MUSIC ROLL: "Florida Blues", Auto-A 661.7 (JC-223) 
  MUSIC ROLL: "Florida Blues", Cap-A 1987.2 (JC-190) 

Checking Data File: "Columbia, Capitol, Supertone and Challenge 
                    Word Roll Catalog", by Mike Montgomery 
Checking Data File: "QRS Autograph Popular Roll Master Catalog", 
                    by Rob DeLand 
Checking Data File: "Tex Wyndham Sheet Music Collection" 
Checking Data File: "Elliot Adams Sheet Music Collection" 
Checking Data File: "Robbie Rhodes Sheet Music Collection" 

  MUSIC FOLIO: "The Florida Blues", in "Blues: An Anthology",  
               ed. by W. C. Handy 
    ©1926 by Albert & Charles Boni, Inc. 
    ©1949 by W. C. Handy and Edward Abbe Niles 
    ©1972 by The Macmillan Company 

Files Exhausted

Begin another theme search? Quit

27 March 1990, 30 August 2002

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