Inside the Effort to Digitize Medieval Monks’ Chants

Scanning and interpreting centuries-old manuscripts is a challenge because musical notation wasn’t formalized yet

Gregorian chant
A page of a manuscript of Gregorian chants Courtesy of Western University

Even centuries after voices first soared in the stone-walled chambers of churches and monasteries, the music of medieval monks' chants has the power to send chills through the body of listeners. Now researchers are working to reconstruct prayer cycles that could last for hours using optical music recognition software, reports Becky Ferreira for Motherboard

Medieval music was probably just as prevalent then as music has been throughout human history. Songs were sung in praise of knights and battles, dances were composed for parties and music was a part of worship in church. However, "much of the music from this era, except for modern re-creations, is now lost," writes Laura Aquaviva and Sofia Diana for Fordham University. The exception is the chants. Monks and priests and even nuns tended to be well educated, and although many would memorize hours and hours of chants, they did come up with a system of notation to preserve the songs for the future.

"[B]y developing a searchable database, not unlike Google Books, we are basically creating an electric monk, a device that knows all of the melodies," says Kate Helsen, an assistant musicology professor at Western University in Ontario, Canada, in a press release. "It’s as though a monk from 1,000 years ago walked into the room and started talking about music. It’s all there."

Medieval monks didn't use notation that modern musicians would recognize. Instead they used a system based on neumes, a kind of predecessor for modern musical notes. The Optical Neume Recognition Project uses software to identify each neume, which might represent a single note or four notes differing in pitches in recognizable patterns. Essentially, the team is creating a virtual dictionary of the notes. Gathering all of the information with computers helps researchers compare newer and older forms of notation as well as speed up the process.

"Basically, we are mining these melodies for a better understanding of how the brain breaks down, thinks about and reconstructs melody year after year after year in a monastic context because that’s what was important to them. To sing the same prayer, the same way every year," Helsen says in the press release. 

At the moment, the team is working on Gregorian chants from the Convent of St. Gall in St. Gallen, Switzerland. This manuscript makes a good starting point for the project, part of a larger effort to computerize musical scores, because the handwriting of the person who prepared the music is relatively clear, notes the project's website. The chants are also well-studied and well-known, which gives the researchers a point of comparison.

Impressively, though these chants were presumably written down for posterity, the experts think that at the time, monks would have memorized the entire repertoire. They estimate it would have taken 85 hours to sing the entire prayer cycle of St. Gall. That feat seems impossible today, but Helsen has confidence it was possible.

"The medieval memory was fabulous for a lot of reasons and this is just another example," she says. 

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