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Researchers Are Digitizing Ancient Monk Chants Into a Massive Database

“The medieval memory was fabulous for a lot of reasons and this is just another example.”

Most of us can recite the lyrics to our favorite songs by heart, give or take a few lines, but it would seem ridiculous to expect even the most diehard music fan to remember several days' worth of music.

Even so, that was exactly what was expected of 11th century monks at the Convent of St. Gall, a monastery in Switzerland. Over 1,000 years ago, these men memorized an estimated 85 hours of Gregorian chants, according to Kate Helsen, an assistant musicology professor at Western University's Don Wright Faculty of Music in London, Ontario.

"A lot of medieval scholars think that it's not possible to retain all of that information," Helsen said in a statement. "They'd say that we just haven't found the books yet but I disagree. The medieval memory was fabulous for a lot of reasons and this is just another example."

Now, Helsen and her colleagues hope to resurrect these prayer cycles with the help of big data and optical music recognition (OMR) software. The effort is called the Optical Neume Recognition Project, and its goal is to build a search engine for sifting through the millions of written "neumes," which were primitive riffs on notation, that abound in prayer books from the Medieval era.

Example of neumes. Image: Optical Neume Recognition Project/Western University

Before the advent of sophisticated staved notation, neumes were an early attempt to communicate musical properties like pitch, rhythm, tempo, and inflection, and were normally recorded as distinctive marks above the written libretto. By scanning and digitally cataloguing the millions of neumes that have been recorded in historical documents, the Optical Neume Recognition Project is creating a one-stop shop for interdisciplinary researchers interested in the evolution of aural tradition and musical notation.

"This project uses software to identify discrete neume shapes in scanned images of early medieval notation and interpret them as musical directives," reads the project's website. "The information gathered from this project can be used to speed up the time it takes researchers to compare old and new notations, isolate differences in chant melodies, and compare adiastematic (unheightened) neumes to early staff notation."

Text and neumes. Image: POP/Flickr

This project, which is part of a wider Canadian-led effort to digitize and democratize musical prints and manuscripts, could have implications for fields beyond musicology. For instance, Helsen is interested in the sheer neurological capacity of the monks, and the ways in which they honed their memorization techniques.

"Basically, we are mining these melodies for a better understanding of how the brain breaks down, thinks about and reconstructs melody year after year after year in a monastic context because that's what was important to them," she said. "And by developing a searchable database, not unlike Google Books, we are basically creating an electric monk. A device that knows all of the melodies. It's as though a monk from 1,000 years ago walked into the room and started talking about music. It's all there."

Correction: The original headline for this article was "Scientists Are Digitizing Ancient Monk Chants Into a Massive Searchable Database." It has been changed to reflect the interdisciplinary makeup of the team, which—with the exception of one computer scientist—are all musicologists.