Nontextual Searching | Music Matters

Most music librarians have encountered patrons who call and ask, “Can you help me find a piece that goes sort of like [begins humming]?”

While there are often textual elements attached to music (composer and performer names, titles, lyrics), there is no way to account in the traditional library catalog for the musical content (melody, chords, rhythm). The reasons for this are myriad: catalogs are developed around collections of books; genuine music description is a time-consuming process; indexing and reading such information requires some level of musical expertise; and so on. Librarians have learned to use specific textual conventions to serve as surrogates for what is largely a nontextual medium (word to the wise: never question a music librarian’s stance on the importance of uniform titles; they are our lifeline in this pursuit).

Analog assistance

External tools can help bridge the gap between the humming patron and the text in the library catalog. Thematic catalogs—indexes of a composer’s works that often include the first few bars of each piece or movement combined with bibliographic information about the work—allow us to compare a score in hand (or in our head) with the extant works of a composer without pulling each individual score from the shelf. These are great for quick reference, provided the user has some hint about who the composer might be.

Another standby source, Harold Barlow and Sam Morgenstern’s A Dictionary of Musical Themes, takes a different approach; rather than only listing pieces with a few bars of music, the authors also converted the first several notes of more than 10,000 musical themes to a simple letter system (think “do, re, mi” with a twist), transposed each to the key of C, and listed them alphabetically. Anyone who knows the first few notes of a theme can use the guide to find the piece’s name, avoiding the need for knowledge of who composed the music. Other print tools help connect music with text in ingenious ways, though most require a fair amount of musical ­expertise.

Online searching

Digital identification platforms span the needs of the music expert and the music enthusiast, with some requiring extensive musical ability to interface and others none at all. Musipedia, the Open Music Encyclopedia (musipedia.org), offers several innovative approaches to discovery of mainly classical music: one can play a tune on a Flash- or Java-based piano, sing or whistle the tune into a computer’s microphone, or even search by tapping the rhythm or by entering the contour of the melody. The search results usually include the piece’s name and composer, a few bars from the score, and often links to recordings or YouTube clips.

Another online tool, SongTapper (bored.com/songtapper), has a greater emphasis on popular tunes, though it includes some classical music as well. It requires no professional knowledge or intervention: tap the rhythm of the song on the keyboard and get brief, text-based results that include the artist and the title.

On the go

Apps for mobile devices are excellent tools for identifying unknown tunes on the fly. SoundHound (soundhound.com) and Shazam (shazam.com) are compatible with a wide variety of devices. Both allow users to capture ambient music with a device’s microphone to identify tunes from commercial releases. SoundHound can sometimes identify hummed queries.

Both applications depend on commercial recordings as their raw material, so they won’t identify music that has never been recorded (or that hasn’t been indexed in their databases, of course). Both apps provide the artist, song title, album, and links to external tools like YouTube, iTunes, Pandora, and more to facilitate access and discovery.

Looking ahead

The idea of nontextual search in the catalog raises questions that could help us rethink our treatment of these resources across the board.

With the increasing availability of these mediated tools, perhaps our profession should consider how to use them in or with library catalogs to allow for searches beyond pure text. Imagine being able to enter a query via a real or virtual piano keyboard and retrieve records for all of the scores of that piece in your library. Or picture an interface that allows the patron to hum at the catalog and generate the work’s name and composer as well as all of the recordings of that piece available for checkout.

We have the opportunity to free ourselves from the limitations of traditional cataloging to add depth and scope to description and expand our patrons’ abilities to discover multimodal materials. We should question the need to encourage patrons to use third-party tools to facilitate the discovery of library materials when we could tie discovery closely to the collection and enable the seamless discovery of our resources.

The time has come for us to learn from our workarounds to provide users with tools that will fulfill their needs to find music and other nontextual materials in libraries in a compelling and meaningful way.


Susannah Cleveland is the head of the Music Library and Sound Recordings Archives at Bowling Green State University in Ohio

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