Music through the centuries

by David McPherson

Image: Ed Kwong

ELVIS is the title — and it’s about groundbreaking music — but “The King” is not the subject. Rather, this unique research project — spearheaded by Julie Cumming — is using technology to delve deep into a journey of discovery to learn more about the music European kings and queens listened to centuries ago.

“We were thinking about a name that had Vertical Intervals in it, and [colleague] Jon Wild said ‘ELVIS — note the VI,’” explains Cumming, the associate dean for research and administration at the Schulich School of Music. “I immediately came up with Electronic Locator of Vertical Interval Successions. We won’t be looking at rock ’n’ roll, though. We’re examining classical music from 1300 to 1900.”

The project examines how musical styles have changed over time by using technology to pinpoint the most common recurring patterns (chords and melodies) in music.

“Our goal is to describe these changes in precise ways similar to the way linguists find the most common recurring groups of words in language,” adds Cumming.

ELVIS is being funded by the Digging into Data Challenge, a unique multi-country funding program that supports cutting-edge research efforts in the humanities or social sciences involving large-scale data analysis. The completed research will be shared next June at a conference in Washington and then further disseminated in journal articles and via the Web.

Five other Schulich School researchers are part of the ELVIS team: Ichiro Fujinaga, Cynthia Leive, Rene Rusch, Peter Schubert and Wild. The team also includes scholars from the U.S. and the U.K., and the ELVIS members represent a broad range of musical expertise — from musicologists to music theorists to experts in music information retrieval.

“It’s a nice mix of individual projects that will develop into shared findings,” Cumming says.