Bello Wins NSF Grant to Study “Building Blocks” of Music

The ability to quickly and easily search a vast catalog of song titles, artists, albums, and genres makes Apple’s iTunes software popular with millions of users. But for Juan Bello, assistant professor of music and music education, the ability to search digital music by its sequential structure opens up exciting possibilities for retrieval, analysis, visualization and composition. Bello has been awarded a $500,000 grant from the National Science Foundation to create a system to decode Western music into its component sequences.

“This study will allow us to understand the ‘building blocks’ of music from the music itself,” explains Bello. “It will allow us to find relationships both within and among songs beyond those provided by a song’s metadata.”

Using computational approaches and tools, Bello aims to break down music audio into its component parts. Analyzing such structural components as chord sequences, harmonic structure, repetition, and rhythm, Bello will be able to produce a map of how an individual song is organized. These maps can then be used to identify patterns across songs, styles, and composers.

The grant, which covers a five-year period, also allows for Bello to conduct outreach to high school students, exploring the use of music and music technologies in science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM) subjects. Bello envisions using musical equipment that students are familiar with, such as microphones, to illustrate properties of physics. “By using musical objects with which students have familiarity, you can talk about sophisticated concepts without the burden of using scientific language only,” says Bello.