Saturday, August 4, 2007

77. The Power of Cantometrics: 2

This is what a Cantometrics coding sheet looks like:

If you click on it you'll see an enlarged version you can actually read. Better still, right click and select "Open in a New Window," so you can go back and forth between this text and the coding sheet.

The leftmost column contains the numbers and labels for each line. The area on the right contains mnemonic symbols representing each of the traits from which the coder will choose. The area in the middle contains the numeric equivalent for each symbol. For each line, the coder circles each relevant symbol and its equivalent number. The number is what is entered into the computer.

To give you an idea of the how the system works, I'll take you on a tour of the first line, "Vocal Gp." or "Vocal Group," which encodes various ways in which the vocal group can be organized. I'll take you briefly through this line for now, but to actually encode this or any other line properly you'll need the coding book, which provides full explanations and instructions. A copy of the coding book was published as Chapter 3 in Lomax et al., Folk Song Style and Culture (AAAS 88, 1968, pp. 34-74), still available as a paperback from

The first symbol on the left represents the null case, i.e., no vocalizing at all. Since Cantometrics was designed to encode vocal music this point was very rarely coded, but occasionally we wanted to encode a purely instrumental performance. Point 2, an L with an N under it, signifies a solo performance with no group. (L was the symbol chosen for a single individual, and N for a group.) Point 3 originally referred to a solo performance with an audibly responding audience, but since this aspect proved impractical, it was quickly discarded and should be ignored. Point 4, symbolized as -L, refers to alternating solo singers. Points 5 and 6, L/N and N/L, stand for what we called "social unison," where all performers sing together in the same rhythm, either in harmony (as in a hymn) or unison. Point 5 is coded when a leader's voice is prominent over all the others and point 6 is coded when no one voice stands out. Point 7, L//N with N//L under it stands for what we called "heterogeneous group" singing, a situation where the singers appear to be discoordinated, either singing totally different things at the same time or the same thing with no apparent coordination. Point 8, L+N, signifies a type of "call and response" or "leader- group" antiphony in which there is no overlap between the solo part and the responding group. Point 9, N+N, is the same as point 8, but between two groups. Points 10 and 11, L(N and N(L, encode solo-group call and response as in 8, but this time with overlap between the "leader" and the "chorus." We code on point 10 when the solo part seems more prominent and on point 11 when the group seems more prominent. Point 13, an underlined W, was originally two overlapping N's, an attempt on our part to symbolize interlocking, which this point represents. W was chosen because it looked to us like the overlapping N's and was much easier to get printed. Point 13 represents a situation where the various parts are interwoven or interlocked, rather than simply alternating, as in points 8-12.

Doubtless there are other ways in which vocal groups can, in theory, be organized -- but these were the basic types we found coming up over and over again as we made our way through a great many recordings from all over the world when the system was being planned. In retrospect, I think we did a good job of accounting for the vast majority of cases actually in use among the great majority of traditional peoples (though clearly not for classical Western music, which can be far more complex). There will, of course, be situations where more than one trait on each line may be equally applicable. For example, you might have a situation where a performance begins with solo-chorus alternation, but ends with interlock; or where an interlocking chorus alternates with a solo voice, etc. In such cases, it is permissible to "double code" or even "triple code" for all relevant cases. While this is not an ideal solution, an attempt to account separately for every single possible permutation of all cases would have made the system completely unwieldy.

Which brings me to what I consider one of the great virtues of Cantometrics, it's acceptance of crude and in some cases ambiguous distinctions. It's only by "glossing over" certain things that traditional musicologists had attempted to fully account for, that we were able to create a widely applicable and practical system for broad-based comparative research.

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