Reporter 427, 16 November 1998


Teaching a computer to read all the bars in all the world

Computers have long been able to read and perform printed sheet music, but the scrawled loops and swirls of handwritten manuscripts such as Max Steiner’s Casablanca score, continue to confound the electronic eye. In a pioneering project at the University, two researchers unwilling to spend today, tomorrow and for the rest of their lives laboriously inputting music note by note are teaching a computer to play it again.

Back in 1985, a music-playing robot emerged from Japan which could read the notes and staves of very simple sheet music and play them on an electronic synthesiser. Technology has since improved, but variations in hand-written symbols have made it impossible to conveniently digitise vast archives of hand-written music for analysis and performance.

Now Dr Kia Ng, currently working in Computer Studies, and Dr David Cooper of the Department of Music are confident they can be the first to solve this problem, using an approach that directly reverses the process of writing music. “A composer writes the note head first, followed by the connected stem or beam, and finally the long thin ties and slurs.

“The computer takes the opposite approach and picks out thin features like the slurs first, as part of its process to break down the complicated structure into identifiable segments,” said Dr Ng, himself an accomplished violinist and former Concert Master of the Clothworkers Centenary Concert Hall Orchestra.

The project will allow musicologists, composers and performers to analyse and interpret music scripts without the time-consuming and error-prone manual input currently needed to present the music in a convenient digital form. “It will do work that would normally take weeks in a few hours,” said Dr Cooper.

The research will be piloted on the especially-rich seam of hand-written film scores, Casablanca included, though wider application across the musical spectrum is anticipated in the future.

The project has received a research grant of over £140,000 from the Humanities Research Board of the British Academy and is scheduled to last for four years, starting in March 1999.

It even raises the possibility of a futuristic electronic orchestra, with each ‘instrument’ played by an automated musician with one digital eye on the music and a second on the commands of a central computerised ‘conductor’. However, not even state-of-the-art technology escapes the age-old musical requirement to practice.

“Although the algorithm is adaptive and self-teaching, to perform a new- piece by a new composer, the computer would need to ‘learn’ it before it could play it quickly and accurately,” said Dr Ng.

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