Posted by Catherine Motuz on December 10, 2012

Christmas has arrived early. With a good selection of pieces in the ELVIS database and the VIS/music21 interface up and running, it is time to come up with queries to run.

One of the main goals of music theory and musicology since they began has been to try to pin down what gives a composer their personal style. Palestrina and Bach sound different even if they are both writing for a 4-part choir, as do Palestrina and Josquin (to slightly specialized ears), but where exactly do the differences lie? After all, these composers all follow many of the same contrapuntal rules, avoiding parallel 5ths and using many of the same formulations to start and end phrases. One of the main type of queries will be to see if analyzing the interaction of melodic and vertical intervals might provide musical fingerprints for composers. We will start with the above-named three because they are all well represented in the ELVIS database.

Determining a composer’s musical fingerprint cannot be reduced to a singly query—there are many factors which can distinguish one style from another. Sample queries might include: how long do composers repeat sections of music? Repetition was more common later in the sixteenth century, so perhaps Palestrina repeats more combinations than Josquin? Now we can find out.

It is not so difficult to recognize Palestrina from Bach from their surface elements—Bach is renowned for adding lots of colourful sharps and flats, while Palestrina’s style is sparse in this regard. It seems, however, that sometimes the structure that the two composers use is more common than we would think. One early query showed that both Palestrina and Bach used parallel 6ths between the soprano and tenor voices, composing the alto and bass around this basic combination. Was this a fluke of our sample or does this point to structural similarities between both composers on a more general level? Once again, now is the time to find out!

Not only composers, but also genres distinguish themselves from each other stylistically, some more obviously than others. The rhythmic difference between a dance piece such as a passamezzo and a church piece such as a motet makes telling them apart easy, but the comparison of pieces of vocal polyphony with each other, a mass and a motet for instance, can prove difficult. They all use similar musical vocabularies, and unless one is listening for the right thing to distinguish them, they can all sound the same. Yet, renaissance theorists wrote heavily about the difference in style between secular and church music, and it seems that some differences were more obvious to them than they are to us. Comparing genres, therefore, is a way of gaining insight into the listening habits of people from another era.

Of the many Renaissance masses provided to the ELVIS project by Rob Wegman, many are so-called “parody” masses. A parody mass uses another piece of music, often a secular one such as a chanson, as its basis, composing a Kyrie, Gloria, Credo, Sanctus and Agnus Dei on the themes of the original piece. Not only the words are changed, but the music is actually recomposed in a church style, making it possible to compare the musical vocabulary of the original chanson, for instance, with the final mass. The kinds of queries are similar to those which will compare the above composers, but the level is somewhat more subtle.

We look forward to sharing what we find!