Technology to track trad


An Irish musician and software technologist has devised an iPhone app that tells you the name of any piece of live trad music – regardless of the player, writes Karlin Lillington

CALL IT a Shazam for traditional music – or maybe not. Where popular application Shazam enables an iPhone to identify pop songs playing on the radio or stereo, Tunepal, an Irish-made iPhone app, can identify more than 13,000 traditional tunes.

“Actually, it’s better than Shazam,” says Tunepal’s creator, Bryan Duggan, a flute player and a lecturer in computer science at Dublin Institute of Technology.

“Shazam can’t find a song if it isn’t an actual recording – it will know Don McLean playing American Pie, but it won’t recognise American Pieplayed on someone’s guitar,” he says. “Tunepal actually recognises a tune played on any instrument.”

The €4.99 musical search engine app, available from the iTunes App Store, also produces historical detail about every song and has become a boon to professional traditional musicians creating sleeve notes for their CDs.

Duggan says Ciarán Tourish (of Altan) and flute player Hammy Hamilton have used the app to prepare for concerts and supply background on CD recordings.

Tunepal has close to two decades of research and development work behind it that has waited until now – when smartphones have the power to do the kind of processor-intensive work required for music recognition – to make a sudden appearance.

In other words, Tunepal is the software equivalent of the “overnight sensation” band that actually has years of touring and album production behind it.

“I feel this is kind of my life’s work,” says Duggan. “I have been thinking about it for so long.”

It arose from his own deep passion for traditional music. “I’ve been playing music since I was a young boy, and I won lots of medals,” he says.

Duggan had the initial idea for Tunepal 20 years ago, when he scanned in pages of tunes from traditional music compendiums to make a searchable computer archive. With the advent of the first processor-powered handheld diary devices, Duggan created a searchable traditional music application for the Psion 5 organiser that could store 5,000 songs, he says.

Then, five years ago, he began a PhD that looked at the overlap between computer modelling and creativity. That turned into the basis of producing a music-recognition application, and he created a website,, to provide background information and a connection point for those interested in the area and his application.

But, as Duggan says, “People at sessions in pubs don’t have PCs with them – they have mobile phones.” Even five years ago, though, phones didn’t have the power to run something like Tunepal. Now, they do, so, last February, Tunepal launched for the iPhone. Duggan will have a version ready for Google’s Android phone operating system too in coming weeks.

While Tunepal may seem to come from the fun and fanciful side of application development – and it definitely is very entertaining – it actually emerged from serious concerns about the custodianship of the “tradition” in traditional music, the potential loss of living history and a national heritage. “There’s an absolutely huge corpus of tunes,” Duggan says.

“Most serious musicians have about 1,000 tunes in their repertoire, but don’t know the names of many of them, and, as music has shifted to downloads, people also don’t have the sleeve note information that would be on albums or CDs. People were losing the heritage and the history of the music.”

Using the app is easy. To identify a tune with Tunepal, a person simply needs to use their phone to record a slice of a live or recorded instrumental session, by one or more players.

Tunepal is specially geared up to identify tunes from noisy sessions and isn’t too bothered by multiple instruments and pub noise, Duggan says. The app then goes to the website to search for a likely match, based on its 13,000-tune archive of Irish, Scotts, Welsh, Breton, Old Time American, Canadian and Appalachian folk tunes.

There’s an existing database of digitised traditional music that Tunepal can draw upon, done about a decade ago when aficionados with some computer expertise used a digital music notation mark-up language called ABC to create the digital archive.

Tunepal has about 93 per cent accuracy in identifying a song. “It’s looking for the most prominent harmonic sound,” says Duggan.

That’s only the beginning. The beauty of the application is that it takes into consideration the natural creativity displayed by musicians. “No musician plays a tune exactly the same way twice,” he says – they tend to embellish and reshape as they play.

Therefore, Tunepal uses an algorithm developed by Duggan to “compensate for the expressiveness a musician introduces into a song”. And that, again, is part of the difference between Shazam and Tunepal. Shazam “is looking for a specific instance of a song, whereas my software is actually looking for melodic similarity.”

Tunepal can identify a song regardless of whether it is played faster or slower, or moves up or down a few semitones.

Identifying a song is really only the beginning, though. Tunepal sends back the name of the song – or, as is sometimes the case with traditional tunes, several different names for the same melody – but, at that point, its real usefulness, especially for serious musicians, begins.

Along with getting archive history on the tune – a discography and other background information – musicians can see the tune represented on staves, and can geomap the query (linking the time and date of the search to a specific location).

Often, this will be where a tune is heard live, which creates searchable performance archives. “You can then see what tunes people are playing where,” notes Duggan. “It’s kind of a crowd-sourced Ceol agus Rince na hÉireann.”

So far, he has about 10,000 instances of queries that have come through the site from users of his iPhone app in locations as varied as Seoul and South Africa, though most are based where traditional music is most often played: in Ireland, the UK and US.

He’s sold about 1,000 copies of the iPhone app and has also won some awards – but adds with a laugh he didn’t develop it for the money. Tunepal has become useful as a subject for numerous papers on its ongoing development (it has gone through four previous versions).

“It’s really kind of magic, especially for people who don’t understand how the technology works,” notes Duggan. “I’m still amazed by it, and I wrote the bloody thing.”

See an introduction to Tunepal: