Parsons Code: Finding Music By Melodic Contours and Musipedia

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musipedia finding music by fingerprinting melodic contours 

When I was at Binghamton University in 1996, I was introduced to a very curious musical tome that was a directory for finding music by knowing whether the next sequenced note of a composition (or syllable of a song) was the same (R for “repeat”) went up (U) or down (D) in pitch.   I had never seen anything like this before and was amazed by how efficient it was for finding the titles/words of compositions that I did not know the name of (or recall) -only the music or “melodic contours”.

Remembering a “tune” and “not the words” seems to one of our global plights as human beings.  This dilemma is caused by the hemispheric division of the brain and us not being able to re-connect them simultaneously to retrieve the whole of the complete thought, or in this case the words/title we associate with the music.  This also happens with “names” and “faces” (I always remember a face -but not the name syndrome).

This is why Parson’s Code and some very interesting derivatives of it shine and can help solve these types of “connective” problems.  Denys Parsons developed this system for publication in 1975 in his aptly titled book “The Directory of Tunes and Musical Themes”.  This book is a categorization and index of music/songs based on their “melodic contour(s)”.  This system is so easy to use, many people that consider themselves “tone deaf” can use it.

Parson’s code works by “coding” the melodic sequence of notes into a contour.  For example, by using the familiar tune “Happy Birthday” we can create a melodic contour of it using the aforementioned “R”s, “U”s, and “D”s, by writing out a sequence of what is happening melodically (pitch wise) to the melody/tune as it being performed or sung:

Turning Happy Birthday into a melodic contour

Happy Birthday to You= (“Hap” First Note is Nothing) R (for “py”) U (For “Bir”) D (for “Day”) U (For “to”) D (for “You”)

Happy Birthday to You = D (for “Hap”) then again R,U,D,U,D

This gives you the melodic contour of R,U,D,U,D for the first phrase of the song and D,R,U,D,U,D for the second. 

So by using the following sequence: RUDUDDRUDUD (A Parson’s Code), we can find the name of the song using a Parson’s code reference tool. When searching for this code through a Parson’s code book or database, you will find that they list two exact matches: Happy Birthday to You and Close Every Door.

By using Parson’s Code, it is easy to find out the name of songs or compositions without even knowing a single word of the lyrics, name of composer or genre of the music and it is very accurate.  The more length of the song you can transcribe using Rs, Us, and Ds, the more accurate the search is. Musipeida is an Open Music Encyclopedia that allows you to search through its database using Parsons Code and it is free.

Musipedia is a fantastic resource that not only allows you find music by using Parson’s Code, but also has a feature that will allow you to sing or whistle a tune and find it by using a pitch to parsons code type of translation.  Additionally, if you only know the rhythm of a piece of music, Musipedia also has a rhythm search feature which you can use to find music names by tapping in the rhythms!  The materials and concepts found on this site would make a great couple of lesson plans for late elementary to high school classes. 

Finding the name or words of a music song or composition online:

The Direct Link to Musipedia:
Find a digital fingerprint of sorts by using Parsons Code: Click It!
Find music by using rhythm: Click It!
Find music by singing or whistling: Click It! 
Find music by using a keyboard and melody: Click It!

Please let me know what you think of this resource, Parson’s code, or any other similar software or “treeware” that you might use.  I’m looking forward to see if any of you were aware of this type of music technology resource. Please join our conversation!

[tags] digital music fingerprint, parsons code, musipedia, humming, singing, whistling, name,rhythm [/tags]
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Joseph M. Pisano, Ph.D. is an industry innovator, education clinician and lecturer, trumpeter and conductor, and the creator of many education websites. He is currently the Vice President of Innovation and Engagement at Keystone Ridge Designs, Inc. After twenty-three years as a professor and administrator at Grove City College, he made the move into industry in 2018.  As one of the youngest full professors in Grove City’s history, he served in various roles over his tenure including the Technical Director of the Pew Fine Arts Center, Assistant and Associate Chairs of Music and Music and Fine Arts, Director of Music and Fine Arts Technology, Director of Jazz Studies, Stage Manager, and he finished his tenure as the Director of Bands where he directed the college’s Symphonic Concert Band, Wind Ensemble, Marching Band, Pep Bands, and various small ensembles.

He been named a TI:ME Teacher of the Year, received the JEN Jazz Educator Award, the PA Citation of Excellence, and named a “member for life” of the PA Intercollegiate Bandmasters Association. He is a past Vice President of the Technology Institute for Music Educators, an associate member of the American Bandmasters Association,  a past President of the PA Intercollegiate Bandmasters Association, and a member of various education and music honoraries. He has written for numerous publications including DCI Magazine, Teaching Music Magazine, and was the Educational Editor for In-Tune Monthly Magazine for eight years; he has contributed hundreds of articles to various publications. He is an active conductor, trumpeter, clinician, and educator. Find out more at his website

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