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Similarity Breeds Confusion – The Challenge of Finding Music

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In addition to the ongoing challenge of direct digital preservation there are other related activities that are crucial to this effort.   Lots of things, actually – that are not directly “preservation” activities but do affect the digital preservation end result.  Things such as metadata – which I’d like to focus on here, and using music as a specific example.

Sketch from "Appalachian Spring". (Aaron Copland Collection, Music Division)

To preserve anything, you have to first be able to find or “access” the item, and the item is only findable if it has accurate information, or metadata attached.   This is the kind of information listed in library catalog records, on web-based music services, or any number of searchable listings.  It’s of course true for any subject area, but as a musician and former staffer of the Library’s Music Division the accessibility of music, of classical music in particular, is of special interest to me.  Whatever the subject, a common challenge exists: how to find the exact historic item among many similar ones.

Music metadata includes information such as composer, artist, title, genre, date, etc. So, what are the challenges in “identifying” this music?  Sometimes, due to the many changes or interpretations over time, the specific “title” of a musical work may match up in two different sources, but the “opus” numbers won’t.  Or, sometimes the title itself will be listed a bit differently, especially if there is a translation involved.  Sometimes one composer’s name has two or more different spellings (“Tchaikovsky” vs. “Chaikovsky”) which can make it difficult to find all listings through a search.  The list goes on.

Portrait of Julius Grossman, by William P. Gottlieb (Gottlieb Collection, Music Division)

Of course, once an item is in digital form, the goal is to have an electronic record with some sort of unique identifier (an ID number) attached.  But you still have to be sure that particular item is the one you are looking for.

Now, let’s say the metadata is consistent for a given item. (We can dream, can’t we?)  But, what about the tool used to find or “access” it?  This next round of confusion is brought on by the digital download, and the fact that many download services are pop-music centric.  So you might download a recording of a Mozart string quartet onto a smart phone or any other digital device and instead of seeing a listing by “Mozart”, the individual tracks/movements would be listed by the performing group instead. This makes it hard to search for a specific work by Mozart, or any other composer for that matter.

We can’t recommend specific commercial download services, but, there are some out there now designed to handle the multi-movement, composer oriented nature of classical music.  So, things are looking up there.

Also, there are some ongoing technical efforts underway in the library and archiving communities, whose members are doing the important work needed to provide solutions for these challenges. To mention a couple – the music information retrieval community, “ISMIR” (active for over 10 years), and “DDEX“, the Digital Data Exchange.

This is really just the tip of the iceberg when talking about challenges in searching for music. The bottom line is, before you can preserve anything, you need to be able to identify, then access, whatever it is you’re trying to preserve.

Comments (3)

  1. la musica es mas bonita cuando la narran como una historia cantada, lamentablemente yo nunca aprendi a cantar , mi abuelita era fanatica de la zarzuela, que era una especia de obra de teatro cantada, eran costumbres desde siglos pasados este tipo de obra majestuosa teatral, quizas halla venido de españa, quizas sea una especia de enjendro marciano que dejaron nuestros viejos abuelos del cosmos, la vida es tan dulce como la miel, y las abejas no lo saben. aunque ellas unidas podrian ser atacadas por las hormigas es cierto pero de que les hacen la gueera a las avispas y salen vencedoras es al menos lo que vi en el national geo,,, es espectacualr que la union haga la fuerza como el reinado de las divisiones.

  2. Thank you and all of the Library for all the hard work and thought they put into things. Having tried to create a searchable database for my comparatively small collection of movies I really don’t envy you your daunting task.

    Although I’d love to see your model.

    I can imagine listing all the ways of spelling but typing them in over and over! Do you put the composer, the orchestra, choral group, quartet in the meta data so they can both easily be found?

    I could add senseless questions for the rest of today and tomorrow but you have much better things to do.

    Thank you again for all of your hard work!

    • Mary,
      Although we do have a system of electronic records, we are still struggling with the similarity issue, too. The solution will probably involve a collaborative effort among institutions, and something that groups such as ISMIR are working on. I just wanted to point out the basic challenge that exists for these music materials, and why there might be problems identifying the right item. Thank you for your kind words about our efforts.

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