portrait of Michael Cuthbert

How a self-described “Navy brat” and “geek” grew up to become a renowned and innovative music historian.

By MIT OpenCourseWare

Michael 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.”

As he describes his musical research, Cuthbert conveys such enthusiasm that it’s hard to imagine he might have considered working in any other domain. That he’s an accomplished composer whose works have been performed by notable ensembles, as well as a talented musician, further underscores the point. Yet, surprisingly, Cuthbert grew up with a fairly modest level of musical exposure as a child. In fact, his entire academic career in music was something of a happy accident.

From Marching Band to Musicology

Cuthbert was raised as a self-described “Navy brat” just outside San Diego. His parents had a small record collection with mainly country music, and a single classical album of Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony. Cuthbert picked up clarinet in elementary school and practiced it through his teen years, with a brief switch to tenor drums for a year in high school so he could hear himself above the din of the high school marching band. As he approached his senior year of high school, however, he realized that he wasn’t suited for becoming a professional clarinet performer. “I saw that there were people out there who were far better than me,” he explains, “I’ve managed to find lots of ways to use computers to make my work easier, but there are no shortcuts when it comes to performance. Spending 6 or 7 hours in the practice room every day wasn’t how I wanted to spend the next 10 years of my life. ”

Cuthbert also composed music during his high school years. “One of my music teachers was handing out a worksheet. She realized that the copier had cut off the bottom of the page, so that the last few lines of music were missing. She offhandedly said that we could finish the piece if we wanted—and I ended up handing in a few pages worth of music—far more than necessary,” he remembers, “But it just felt so magical to be able to create music on the page.”

After being accepted at Harvard University as an undergraduate, Cuthbert resolved to pursue what he considered practical studies. He considered economics, physics, or electrical engineering, but after a difficult first year whose only bright spot was a course in 19th-century chamber music, he decided that he’d rather flunk out studying something he loved than muddle through school feeling uninspired. Not surprisingly, once he immersed himself in musical studies, his grades bounced right back, and Cuthbert eventually graduated summa cum laude. “What I have always loved about studying music was knowing how open-ended it was,” he reflects on those years, “In most exams in any given science, you always knew there was a perfect score you could get. What I loved in music was that you could always do better. There were no real boundaries. If you want to learn more, you learn more.”

“What I have always loved about studying music was knowing how open-ended it was. In most exams in any given science, you always knew there was a perfect score you could get. What I loved in music was that you could always do better. There were no real boundaries. If you want to learn more, you learn more.”

Although pursuing his passion wherever it led him has defined Cuthbert’s success as an adult, he admits that he may have frustrated some of his teachers as a young student. “I always managed to get good grades, but I’m sure that I infuriated a few teachers along the way,” he muses, “I would sometimes get caught up in a specific topic instead of following the lesson plan. If we spent a single class learning how to find the area of polygons, I would spend the next week obsessed with calculating the area of every possible shape—hexagons, octagons, decagons—and so on.”

Making Use of OCW

Lucky for him that he’s got OpenCourseWare to help feed his roving curiosity these days. “I think OCW is amazing. One of the reasons I really love it so much is that, because I studied art, there were a lot of topics that I missed in the sciences,” he says, “So OCW allows me to really brush up on those topics that interest me.”

Cuthbert goes on to explain how OCW has also served him professionally. “OCW is obviously great for self-learning. But what I think is sometimes overlooked is how valuable OCW can be for faculty who are creating their own courses,” he says, “It allows anyone get an inside look at how other professors are organizing and teaching their classes, in a way they might never have seen. That kind of exposure is invaluable.”

Having published some of his own MIT courses on OCW (21M.269 Studies in Western Music History: Quantitative and Computational Approaches to Music History21M.262 Modern Music: 1900-1960, and 21M.220 Early Music), Cuthbert openly solicits feedback from both students and professors. “I hope that people find my course useful—but I also hope they’ll tell me what they don’t like about it. At places like MIT—all over the world, really—there are people who are trying to actually change and evolve knowledge, not just report what’s already known. Disagreements and feedback are what creates diversity and new discoveries. That’s what really interests me most.”