Alan Lomax is well known for the thousands of folk songs he recorded for the Library of Congress. Less known is the system he developed for analyzing music, which he called Cantometrics, and he and other scholars applied to a collection of over five thousand songs from around the world. The system makes 37 broad measurements of music and the social structure of the group performing it. The work was collected into a database that comprises a sort of DNA of folk music, at a time when homogenizing cultural forces like radio and television had not fully taken hold. As this music has literally been passed from person to person since the beginning of human social life, the patterns that emerge from Lomax’s analysis give us unique insights into out collective history as expressed in music.
The Association for Cultural Equity, run by Lomax’s daughter Anna, houses the Cantometric archive today, and they’ve recently begun the huge task of completing the information and updating the database to create something that will be accessible to the world. As a first step, I’ve been working them to create tools for visualizing and navigating the musical taxonomy, or family tree, that the analysis helps to shape.
These two views (geography-then-taxonomy and taxonomy-then-geography) are like wonderful, rich-media web radio stations, and will be great ways to access the large collection. But even more exciting are the kinds of tools that the Association is developing based on analysis of the cantometric data. With these, people could select for a trait – say, vocal rasp, or presence of parallel harmonies – and see all the songs in the database ordered by the degree of that trait.
Or you could develop a distinct profile of traits based on songs in a culture and see which other cultures are the most similar, or dissimilar.