The Neume Notation Project

Research in Computer Applications to Medieval Music

Author and Principal Researcher

Louis W. G. Barton


Initial 'T'he Neume {def.} Notation Project is principally an exploration of data representations for medieval music notations and data streams. Its primary goal is to aid musicologists {def.} in their research about manuscripts of medieval plainchant {def.}. The project proposes a model of data abstraction that is designed to be both intuitive and powerful for the advancement of such research. In particular, it provides a method for encoding visually-oriented information about chant manuscripts that can be useful for correlating variants between similar chant melodies in different manuscripts.

In proposing a "lossless" (or, universal) encoding of manuscript data, we hope to foster interchange of electronic data between musicologists, who otherwise might be unable to share digitized manuscript files. By facilitating data interchange, the project is expected to be of benefit to researchers who are concerned with the dating of manuscripts, the line of transmission of certain chant melodies, and speculations about the primitive forms of melodies. Since the original manuscripts are the primary (and often the only) source of information about medieval music, we expect that greater control of manuscript data may allow scholars to infer new information about several related topics, such as the origins of European musical notation, the culture of medieval calligraphy {def.}, and nature of ecclesiastical {def.} life in the Middle Ages. As a residual benefit, the project provides a convenient method for editing and printing fragments of neume notation for journal publication, choir sheets, or other printed distribution. Several stylized forms of early- to late-medieval music notation are accommodated.

A overriding design goal of the project is to provide a data representation that is, as nearly as possible, "lossless." That is to say, a minimal amount of musical and textual information is discarded during the manuscript-encoding process. This representation accommodates a variety of notational "families" and writing styles within those families; it does not preserve paleographic (i.e., individual handwriting) information. The representation includes a comprehensive taxonomy of neume forms across notational families. This goal of a lossless representation stands in contrast to other encoding schemes that are currently in use. Other, currently-available encoding schemes typically discard large amounts of manuscript information under the expedient of producing a tractable data stream.

The high fidelity of this project's data representation has, however, a cost in terms of labor-intensive data entry. For this reason, considerable design effort has been expended to provide a convenient means of data entry. To reduce the labor of data entry, the project also proposes an optical character-recognition program for rough-draft data entry from electronically scanned manuscripts. Additional work is contemplated for providing translation programs that would convert data to-and-from other data representations that now exist.

Because of the high investment of labor in manuscript encoding, and because the manuscripts are unique specimens housed in geographically-distant locations, we see a lossless data representation as crucial to substantial new progress in medieval musicology. The limits of human cognition restrict the quantity and complexity of data that musicologists can analyze by themselves. A lossless data representation and widely-available data stores (possibly via the WorldWide Web), would allow the power of the computer to be brought to bear on the corpus {def.} of chant manuscripts. By this means, the expertise of musicologists might be leveraged to produce significant new results.

Origins of the Project

This project is an outgrowth of various influences in the author's life: a lifelong interest in music as a student, performer, and composer; decades of training and professional experience as a computer scientist; a special interest in computer applications to music that began in 1967; a period in his life when he was deeply religious and considered becoming a contemplative monk in the Catholic Church. Initial work on this project was done in partial fulfillment of the B.A. degree in Music and Computer Science at Yale University. The project was significantly expanded in partial fulfillment of the S.M. degree in Computer Science at Harvard University. Parts of this project are now being done as thesis research for the DPhil in Software Engineering degree at the University of Oxford. As a university professor, he shares with his graduate students in Computer Science some of the challenges and rewards of this research.


The author wishes to express his gratitude to his advisors listed at the head of this document, to Professors Peter J. Kindlmann and James Grier who oversaw his research at Yale University, and to Professor Craig M. Wright who first introduced him to medieval plainchant. He is also indebted to Professor Alejandro E. Planchart (his first teacher in the theory of music), Professor Claude V. Palisca (who largely formed his point of view on musicology), and other mentors in various disciplines.

He also wishes to acknowledge several of his graduate students who made significant contributions to the design and programming of the Neume Notation Editor, especially Sunitha Devanahalli, Matthew P. McMahon, Deepa Metlapalli, and Ye Zhu. Other individuals who made substantial contributions to parts of this project are listed in the credits at appropriate places on this site.

About the Author

Louis W. G. Barton Louis W. G. Barton began his professional career in 1967 as a systems programmer on the IBM 360 Time Sharing System. He worked for many years in research and business computing prior to entering academic life. He earned his bachelor's degree (with distinction) in music and computer science at Yale University, where he studied musicology under Profs. James Grier, Claude V. Palisca, and Craig M. Wright. He created an organ-to-computer interface in 1972 under Prof. Peter J. Kindlmann (well before the advent of MIDI). His Senior Project at Yale was to create a neume font and adapt a music-editing program for printing neumed documents. He earned his master's degree in computer science at Harvard University. At Harvard (and as a cross-registered student at M.I.T.) he did preliminary work for the project reported here. He is a doctoral candidate in software engineering at the University of Oxford, and Assistant Professor of Mathematics and Computer Science at Suffolk University. His interests include many-valued logics, artificial intelligence, and Java programming. Trained in keyboard performance and theory from childhood, music is his lifelong avocation..

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Revision: 28 January 2000
Copyright © 1995, 1997-2000, Louis W.G. Barton