Faculty profile: Michael Cuthbert

cuthbertMichael Cuthbert, MIT Associate Professor of Music, already has a long list of academic honors to his name, but his talent for creatively combining his two greatest interests—music and computers—may be his most impressive accomplishment. “As a child, my two instruments were a clarinet and a Commodore 64 computer,” he says, “The geek in me has always been on the lookout for new ways to connect them.”

He’s managed to bring both together with remarkable results through his groundbreaking research into 14th and 15th century European music, powered by an open source software package that he designed, called music21. This program—freely available and used by thousands—allows him to analyze the inner mechanics of music and spot historically important trends with an unprecedented depth, breadth and speed. By allowing any musical historian to spot patterns across musical works that may span hundreds of years and millions of notes, Cuthbert’s music21 has made a substantial contribution to the field of quantitative musical research, which he simply calls “listening faster.”

Each summer over the past few years, Cuthbert has pored through various archives in Italy and Germany—like a high–tech musical sleuth—searching centuries-old documents for fragments of musical pieces. Whatever he finds on these old parchments are often half-erased or badly damaged, but even the smallest musical fragment becomes useful once transcribed into his database. “I might find only fourteen notes, but I can take that phrase, and compare it to all the other similar pieces from the same time period.”

Through his research, Cuthbert has discovered a number of common harmonic, rhythmic, and melodic patterns, and succeeded in shifting the historical perspective on what was formerly viewed as a fragmented musical period. “Often when you find a new sheet or piece of music, there’s usually something that’s somehow different about it. Without a computer database and an ability to compare this music to many others, you tend to see these pieces as somewhat of an exception. But with a computer you can see the larger connections. Something that you thought was new and unique was simply a new condition, a slightly different way of doing the same music.” Read more.

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