Understanding How the Brain Processes Music through the Bach Trio Sonatas

Research Overview

The composer Varèse defined music as “organized sound,” yet much remains to be learned about how sound is organized to make music. This project takes a “big data” approach to understanding the patterns and principles of music with a focus on the Bach Trio Sonatas for organ.  Bach is the go-to composer for understanding the fundamentals of music.  His Trio Sonatas have been important pedagogical tools from Bach’s time to today in teaching performance, improvisation and composition.  The organ is the ideal instrument for performance digitization since the performer only controls the attack and release of each note: once a note is started, pitch and timbre remain the same.

The team will develop a library of digitized performances of the Bach trio sonatas by the two Principal Investigators and students and faculty in the U-M Organ Department.  From this dataset, the team will study harmony, counterpoint and music structure from a data science perspective.  They will also mathematically compare different performances to determine features that make performances artistic, as well as common mistakes students and performers make with these pieces.  Some of the research questions include: What mathematical representations reveal interesting patterns and features in these works? Can we identify patterns in these works that can be used to help guide future compositions?  How can we use network theory to represent the chord progressions in these works?  How can we quantify common features and differences between performances?  Faculty members of the U-M Organ Department will review and validate the findings and suggest hypotheses to test by the analysis team, for example, particularly tricky sections of the trio sonatas, common ornaments, or other interesting facts about the trio sonatas.  The digitized trio sonatas will be shared with U-M researchers and will enable research and pedagogy in many disciplines, including data science, music performance, mathematics and music psychology.

Interested readers can find audio recordings of the Trio Sonatas performed by Dr. Kibbie: http://www.blockmrecords.org/bach/kibbie.htm

Audio: The team’s creation of Hail to the Victors with chords in the style of Bach’s Trio Sonatas.

Research Impact

Research Team

Daniel Forger, co-Principal Investigator, Professor, Mathematics, College of Literature, Sciences and the Arts
James Kibbie, co-Principal Investigator, Professor and Chair, Organ, School of Music, Theatre and Dance