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Sunday, August 7, 2016


World Music Visualisation: Instrument Evolution

No attempt at instrument modelling can ignore the development of instrument form and function over time. Instrument evolution opens a window not only onto our relationship to technology and environment, but also onto the erosion of community, as expressed through the decline in social music and dance.

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Instrument Evolution

Note: the images in this post are drawn from external sites which you are encouraged to visit for further information.

Instrument evolution is a difficult topic, in that it has been subject to much the same chaotic drivers as humanity itself: accident or inspiration, materials availability, technical skills, usage, the vagaries of migration and the constraints of music-cultural traditions.

Chordophone Evolution (Simplified)

Instruments certainly developed alternative forms - in parallel, in various geographical locations and -despite common ancestry- often known under a variety of regional names.

Kantele: Geographical Distribution, with Regional Names

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The problem is to bring such information together in a form of concrete use to the worldwide music community.

Potential uses include discovery or identification, restriction of search, identifying regional differences such as in construction, materials, or playing styles, or the wider issue of comparative musicology.
Let's break the problem down. Here are our three main facets:

  • instrument classification (Hornbostel-Sachs or other)
  • geographical distributions
  • naming, by region
  • history
  • concensus

Instrument Classification

A variety of data visualisation tools exist for each of these. For instrument classification, we have our established tree (dendrogram) view.

Geographical Distribution and Naming

Happily, representation of geographical location or distribution are well represented in data visualisation libraries, with the underlying data generally formatted (as for instrument classifications) in JSON formats, particularly the GeoJSON and TopoJSON specifications.


Our best mapping library bet is perhaps Leaflet.js, which is open source, supports zooming and panning, is free of the (proprietary) limitations of Google maps, and is both endorsed and used by a number of relatively young, high-tech firms.


Again, tree (dendrogram) structures and their underlying JSON format data are at our disposal, but there are alternatives:

Timeline Example
Sankey Diagram

It mustn't necessarily be a timeline, though. Here, for example, a timeline-linked radar plot:

Timeline-Linked Radar Plot


Clearly representation is not a problem. Libraries and examples exist: it is just a matter of applying them.

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The real problem is likely to lie more in the area of information gathering, community consensus and the suitable online, shared tools. Moreover, history itself is, unfortunately, also seen by some as a tool, especially in the context of identity..

Whatever: the core problem is to find a tool allowing systematic and moderated construction of the JSON data stores mentioned above.
One possibility might be a modified version of jsoneditoronline or Jason Dorn's open-source json-editor. You can play around with a basic version (entirely adequate for these needs) here.

Incidentally, a further consideration is that multiple views may need to be generated from one data set. This, however, is likely to call into question some of the architectural decisions underpinning the platform - and especially that of avoiding URI (other than physical) routing.


About Cantillate -

Autodidact. Laird o' the Windy Wa's. Serial Failure with Attitude. Bit of a Dreamer..

Comments, questions and (especially) critique welcome.