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Research project: Medieval Music, Big Data and the Research Blend

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Of the three principal genres of polyphonic music that dominated the high middle ages, organum and motet have claimed the attention of scholarship since the very beginning of the twentieth century. The third principal genre, the conductus has only recently been brought into an equivalent focus through an AHRC research grant Cantum pulcriorem invenire: Medieval Latin Poetry and Song’. Many questions remain yet unresolved. The most pressing of these is the function and context of this extraordinary repertory of polyphonic song.

The conductus is one of the central genres of medieval music, and consists of settings of Latin rhythmic poetry set to newly-composed music in the period from 1100 to around 1400 and later. Despite the survival of around 900 poems and slightly fewer musical settings, issues around the context and function of the conductus have continued to prove elusive and subject to debate and dissent. During the AHRC-funded ‘Cantum pulcriorem invenire (CPI)’ project, haphazard and ad hoc exploitation of big data were used largely to clarify questions associated with establishing poetic texts, their meaning and translation. One significant by-product of this work was the emergence of intertextual relationships between the texts of the conductus and other texts. A single example documents the use of the poetry of a conductus in a contemporary chronicle – completely unknown and unique in the repertory which will be written up as such: part of the text of the polyphonic conductus ‘Naturas deus regulis’ (c1200) is found in the Chronicle of the Abbey of Abingdon, dated sometime later than 1160 as part of a description of the miraculous expulsion of the Danes from the abbey’s monastic refectory in the late 860s.


The questions that Medieval Music, big Data and the Research Blend seeks to address is how far this ad hoc exploitation of big data can be systematized by the use of the Semantic Web (SW), and how far the scattered examples of intertextuality so far discovered are replicated elsewhere in the repertory.


The research materials fall into two categories: source and target data.


1. The source data – the texts of the conductus poems – have been digitised as part of the CPI project and exist in XML format.


2. The target data – the big data which consists of the vast amount of digitised medieval text of all forms (chronicles, technical text, patristics, poetry) – exists de facto on the web and in a variety of searchable open-access formats.


The framework for the research is a blend of newly-developed digital tools for the identification of the key correspondences between the texts of the conductus and the larger repertory of texts that are present in a big-data environment. The identification of texts and text fragments from the source data within the much larger target dataset will provide a ranked list of correspondences between the conductus and other texts that a researcher can then process using a blend of manual and digital tools. The aim of the project is to further the understanding of the function and context of the conductus and significantly to redraw the map of medieval polyphonic music in the period 1150-1350.




All programming source code and resources are available on github at

Related research groups

Music Performance Research
Musicology and Ethnomusicology
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