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Epstein School Scholar Puts O.R. Tools to Work on Music

Pianist/computational engineer Elaine Chew says a field that has revolutionized fields from advertising to zoology may have the art of Bach and the Beatles as its next triumph

June 30, 2008 — Operations Research, an interdisciplinary technique that uses applied mathematics and modeling to analyze complex, multidisciplinary problems, is poised for a new challenge, according a new paper by the Viterbi School's Elaine Chew.

MIMI (multi-modal interaction for musical improvisation) demo at the Berlin Musical Instrument Museum, Berlin, Germany, with the Seiler Grand Piano, the first MIDI grand piano produced for TV production. MIMI was the result of interdisciplinary collaboration among Viterbi and Thornton faculty: Alexandre François (Computer Science), Elaine Chew (Industrial and Systems Engineering), and  Dennis Thurmond (Keyboard Studies).  — Photo by E. Chew.
In “Math & Music: The Perfect Match,” published in the June 2008 issue of OR/MS Today, Chew describes the many advantages of an operations research approach to solving computational problems in music composition, analysis, and performance.

Chew is a 2007-2008 Radcliffe Institute Fellow and associate professor in the Daniel J. Epstein Department of Industrial and Systems Engineering and the Ming Hsieh Department of Electrical Engineering at USC.  She is also an accomplished pianist who carries on a continuing schedule of professional concert appearances.

According to Chew, operations research techniques are now in successful use in fields ranging from advertising to zoology.

To model, study, and assist humans in what they do in analyzing, composing, and performing music is a natural next step, Chew says. And digital representation of music has made the subject matter far more accessible to O.R. methods.

“The field of music and computing has experienced unprecedented growth in recent years, spurred on by the pervasiveness of computing and widespread access to digital music information,” Chew says. “Mathematical representations of music allow music knowledge to be encoded in computer-friendly terms, so that music computing researchers can design software to help us process and understand complex and vast amounts of music information.”  

Chew cites two music technologies already on the market: Shazam and Pandora.  Shazam allows users to retrieve details of a music recording based on an audio example that is dialed-in over the phone.  Pandora will suggest new songs based on the user's current favorites.  Interactive music games, where a user might take on the persona of a rock star, are also a perennial favorite.  

Now on the horizon is a “musical Google,” in which the user can retrieve music files from the Internet simply by humming a melody or providing an audio sample.
Chew, an accomplished pianist, has always been interested in computer interfaces that make music understandable and/or visual to lay audiences.

Beyond the market-driven motivations for music and computing, mathematical and computational tools applied to music can help researchers discover important knowledge about human culture and creativity, such as insights into how composers and performers experiment with, and decide on, new ideas.  These scientific processes and discoveries will impact fields such as musicology and neuroscience.

The article presents resources for learning more about this emerging field of mathematics and computation in music, including venues where music computing researchers convene and publish.  It also cites open courseware and selected examples in automated music analysis, music composition and improvisation, and expressive performance, based on research projects at the USC Viterbi School’s Music Computation and Cognition Laboratory, as well as related work.

Chew founded the Music Computation and Cognition Laboratory at USC, and was the first honoree of the Viterbi Early Career Chair.