Observant OCW users will recognize the face of Prof. Michael Cuthbert from the “Meet Our Instructors” section of our homepage. Today, you’ll see that same face on MIT’s homepage:

Professor Michael Cuthbert on MIT's homepage, his hands on a piano keyboard and a musical text.Cuthbert uses computational tools to study music history. MIT News writes:

Cuthbert’s interest in programming has led him to develop a host of educational and coding tools for other music scholars and teachers, as part of a program called music21. The idea is to build an open-source toolkit with a variety of applications. Late this summer, Cuthbert was putting in 50 hours a week, by his own estimate, programming tools for his classes.

The quantitative approach, Cuthbert says, is simply borne of his desire to know more about music history. Take the question of how much 14th-century music survives. Suppose we only have page 68 of a particular manuscript of music; it might appear that we have lost all of the compositions in the manuscript to that point. But suppose many musical compositions reappear, from manuscript to manuscript — as they did in the 14th century. The first 68 pages of our manuscript might well not be filled with unique music lost to history; they could have had copies of well-known songs. Cuthbert’s calculations flesh out that logic with the existing statistics.

“I hope somebody will carefully go through my data,” Cuthbert says. For musicologists with no training in population biology, he acknowledges, “It does begin to look a little like black magic. You have to buy that the programming is right and the equations are correct.”

But the approach has had traction with Cuthbert’s students, who have begun doing quantitative analyses of things like the distribution of notes written by Beethoven before and after he went deaf, in an attempt to analyze the effects of the great composer’s hearing loss on his music. Continue reading.

You can learn more about Cuthbert’s teaching and tools in his course Studies in Western Music History: Quantitative and Computational Approaches to Music History, and explore his other courses on OCW. You can also read why he values OCW on our website.