What is the Polyphony Database?
PolyphonyDatabase.com is a detailed catalogue of early music sources designed to help musicians perform, academics study, and enthusiasts explore a vast and glorious repertoire quickly and easily. It aims to combine the practicality of CPDL with the academic rigour and ambition of the RISM census, to make use of similar projects where possible, and to directly combat the frustrations performing musicians have with all existing resources.
It is an altruistic endeavour and will always be free to access. There are currently only a handful of administrators, but as its stability and functionality improves I plan to allow more people to sign up and contribute.
Its three main goals are:
- To assist performers, directors, and editors by cataloguing the contents of primary sources, source concordances, and basic information about how each piece of music can be performed.
- To provide a reliable starting point for academic research by linking to library catalogues, other existing databases, and facsimile images of early music manuscripts and prints.
- To provide a repository for properly sourced critical editions, performing scores, and recordings of as much of this music as possible, each carefully vetted for typesetting quality and accuracy, and made available for free download, so that this music might be discovered and appreciated by a wider audience.
The story so far
The Polyphony Database was written in Ruby on Rails by a professional web developer, and all the code is free to peruse at https://github.com/frahasio/polyphonydatabase. The site has been live since August 2017, and a large amount of cataloguing has already been completed.
We've mainly concentrated on sources of sacred choral music to date, especially where facsimiles of the original exist online, but we intend to include secular and instrumental music. Obviously, the usefulness of the database depends on the quantity and quality of its content so I want to make sure that contributors can spend as much time as possible generating this and as little as possible trawling Google, battling with spreadsheets, and repeating work.
The site is already a useful resource, but there are several improvements that need to be made to the data model and the cataloguing/filtering process before the database can achieve its full potential. I can't afford to bankroll the project as a hobby any longer - the funding amount is based on a quote for the original developer to complete the following:
- Composer attributions are currently flagged as accurate or inaccurate, meaning the cataloguer has to know this information, or make a subjective decision while working. The improvement will involve changing this model so that the cataloguer need only match a standardised spelling to an attribution while cataloguing, and match identical pieces with conflicting attributions at a later stage.
- Editing titles and assigning functions to compositions is currently done at a composition level making it a long winded and inconsistent process. This will be separated so that titles and liturgical uses can be standardised on a much broader scale.
- There is currently no filter by 'voice combination' (e.g. SATB), and it is not always easy to deduce this from the displayed clefs. New pages will be built to allow clef combinations to be matched to the appropriate voicings, and these voicings to filter the main interface.
- There is currently a one-to-one relationship between a source MS or print and its scribe or publisher. This will be changed to allow multiple links, and split to distinguish between the types of creator.
- Various other small changes to improve the cataloguing workflow and public interface, and include links to shops where users can buy existing published editions and recordings of music.
On top of these structural changes:
- Front end design will need a refresh to reflect changes and improve usability.
- Licensing documents, submission procedures, and typesetting guidelines need to be written and reviewed.
- Cataloguing must continue in earnest!
- There are ongoing server costs
I have been cataloguing, editing, and performing Renaissance music for more than a decade, mostly just for fun. My academic achievements end with an unimpressive BMus in composition, but through sheer enthusiasm and persistence I've had the privilege of working with many luminary musical minds and internationally renowned performers.
My number crunching day jobs in the last decade have taught me a lot about data and its manipulation, putting me in the unique position of having experienced the shortcomings of existing early music resources and knowing what needs to be done to improve them.