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Expressivity as a Challenge to Semantic Audio Research

Gerhard Widmer

Institute for Computational Perception, Johannes Kepler University Linz, Austria
Austrian Research Institute for Artificial Intelligence (OFAI), Vienna, Austria

Semantic Audio and Music Information Retrieval (MIR) Research have led to some spectacular successes in recent years. They have made it possible to build machines that listen to music, follow and track it in real time, extract useful information like melody, harmonies, beat and rhythm, categorise music into genres and other classes, automatically monitor TV and radio stations worldwide, and do many other useful things. All of this is based on algorithms that analyse audio and extract information from the audio signal that relates to what we may call the `semantics' of the signal: higher-level aspects that most humans readily perceive when listening to musical audio.

Despite these successes, however, I would claim that we have barely scratched the surface of what music really is, what it means, and what it is in music that moves us. In this presentation, I would like to focus on a dimension of the semantics of musical audio that has not yet received much attention in the semantic audio research community: the dimension of expressivity in musical performance — especially in the performance of classical music. Expressivity in performance refers the millions of different ways in which skilled performers can play the same piece of music, shaping it and making it come alive via subtle nuances in tempo, timing, dynamics, articulation, timbre, etc., and in this way giving the piece a unique character and emotional quality and expressing their own understanding and personal `meaning' of the music. That this is an important aspect of the music is evidenced by the fact that millions of music lovers all over the world continue to buy recordings of (or go to see yet another live performance of) pieces they have already heard many times.

In this presentation I will
•  introduce performance expression as an important dimension of the "semantics" of a piece of music;
•  discuss and demonstrate what it means to extract, quantify, characterise, and model this via machine;
• review recent work on computational modelling of performance expression;
• sketch possible application scenarios;
• and identify pertinent research challenges for our field.

Generally, my aim is to promote a field of research that not all attendees of this conference may be so familiar with and that, I believe, is of real importance when we speak of the `semantics' of musical audio.


Bio of presenter

Gerhard Widmer ( is full professor and head of the Department of Computational Perception at the Johannes Kepler University Linz, and head of the Intelligent Music Processing and Machine Learning Group at the Austrian Research Institute for Artificial Intelligence (OFAI), Vienna. He holds degrees in computer science from the University of Technology Vienna and the University of Wisconsin/Madison, USA. His research interests are in computational models of musical skills (notably: expressive music performance), and in the application of Artificial Intelligence and machine learning methods to real-world musical problems. He has been awarded several research prizes, including the highest scientific award in the country of Austria, the "Wittgenstein Prize" (2009). In 2006, he was elected a Fellow of the European Coordinating Committee for Artificial Intelligence (ECCAI), for his contributions to European AI Research.

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