Crunching ballads

punch cards

In the 1940s Bertrand Harris Bronson became one of the first scholars to use computers for musicological analysis.

For one of his projects he encoded melodic characteristics of hundreds of tunes collected for the traditional ballad Barbara Allen on punch cards, so a computer could ferret out similarities. His project resulted in four groups of tunes, members of which came from both sides of the Atlantic with varying frequency.

This according to “All this for a song?” an essay by Bronson reprinted in his collection The ballad as song (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1969, pp. 224–242).

Above, an illustration from the article (click to enlarge); below, the classic recording of the song by Jean Ritchie, a singer Bronson deeply admired.


Filed under Curiosities, Ethnomusicology

3 Responses to Crunching ballads

  1. Reblogged this on Karen McAulay Teaching Artist and commented:
    As an Exeter postgrad in 1979, I was the first music postgrad to involve the computer science dept in doing exactly what Bronson did, only with plainsong comparisons. I had never heard of Bronson at the time, and I had no idea at all that he had done something similar before I was even born!

  2. In 1979, I was the first Exeter music postgrad to work with the computer science department to do just that with plainsong sequences! I had NO IDEA Bronson had done the same thing so much earlier. I too had to fill in cards that someone else punched then fed into a computer… how times have changed!