THE BRITISH LIBRARY

Music blog

07 April 2014

A Big Data History of Music

We are delighted to announce that the Arts and Humanities Research Council (AHRC) has awarded Royal Holloway, University of London and the British Library just over £79,000 towards a research project exploring centuries' worth of documentation of printed and manuscript music.  This collaboration between Royal Holloway and the British Library is bringing together for the first time the world's biggest datasets about published sheet music, music manuscripts and classical concerts (in excess of 5 million records) for statistical analysis, manipulation and visualisation and will, it is to be hoped, provide a paradigm shift in how music history is researched.

Sacred music Wordle

Data from seven existing databases and catalogues is being used as the basis of this project. These datasets (two of which are not currently available online) include: the British Library's catalogues of printed and manuscript music; the bibliographies created by Répertoire International des Sources Musicales (RISM) that list European music printed 1500-1800 and music manuscripts in European libraries; and the RISM UK Music Manuscripts Database and the Concert Programmes Project database. These catalogues and databases are already essential finding tools for researchers of music history and musicology, plus many scholars of performance studies and cultural history. However, until now it has not been possible to analyse these rich collections of data for large-scale trends in the dissemination of music, the popularity of specific composers, or the development of musical taste.

Our project will align and combine the seven datasets so that they can be analysed as big data. Key areas of the British Library data are being enriched and cleaned in order that they can be successfully aligned with the other datasets. The project team will then pilot ways in which the combined dataset can be analysed with approaches taken from the study of big data. By analysing the frequency, spread and distribution of specific compositions and composers' outputs, the project will challenge current thinking about how music was transmitted across borders, how musical taste developed, and how certain composers or repertories were canonised as carrying aesthetic value. The results of this research will be disseminated via a symposium held at the British Library, to which academics and non-academics will be invited. Finally, the data will be made available as an open dataset for researchers to undertake big data research across multiple disciplines.

The project is being funded under the £4 million ‘Digital Transformations in the Arts and Humanities: Big Data Research’ funded by the Arts and Humanities Research Council with support from the Economic and Social Research Council.  It is being led by Dr Stephen Rose, Senior Lecturer in Music at Royal Holloway, with Dr Sandra Tuppen, Curator of Music Manuscripts at the British Library, as Co-Investigator, and is due to be completed by the end of March 2015.  For further information, please contact stephen.rose@rhul.ac.uk.

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