Artificial intelligence may be used to reveal secrets behind traditional folk music dating back thousands of years

Artificial Intelligence
Photograph by Kelsey Meaden-Moore

The secrets behind traditional folk music from across the globe and dating back thousands of years are likely to be revealed by using artificial intelligence, according to a leading academic expert.

Speaking at Folk Music Analysis, a three-day event showcasing cutting edge technological research methods and findings using ethnomusicology and computational analysis at Birmingham City University, Dr Islah Ali-MacLachlan highlighted advances in the field which now allow for greater understanding of the cultural data embedded in folk music.

The senior lecturer in audio engineering and acoustics said, “In this era of streaming, music discovery, digitisation and algorithms, one of the last bastions of music to be extensively and accurately mapped as well as understood is traditional folk music from across the globe. Sounds that have taken hundreds, if not thousands, of years to evolve, are full of human, cultural, religious, societal and geographical intricacies that we will benefit from understanding. The Folk Music Analysis workshop is a chance to discuss worldwide folk music traditions and the tools we use to extract information about them.”

Twenty-siix papers were presented at the event covering a varied range of subjects including a case study on south Iranian bagpipe music; comparisons of human music, speech and bird song; multimedia recordings of traditional Georgian vocal music; visualisation of Hindustani classical music, and the importance of ‘the beat’ for tango dancers.

Tempo, timbre, step changes in melody, pitch, rhythm and other elements of song and music combined with different approaches to capturing sound through field research are all markers that researchers and machine learning – a form of artificial intelligence (AI) – use to define the origin, formation, history and lineage of a particular style of music.

Dr Ali-MacLachlan continued, saying “Computer analysis is often able to make links that are difficult to hear but offer an insight into music from the past or how traditions have changed. Imagine being able to understand how a musician from 200 years ago would play a piece that was written last week, or understanding how Scottish, Irish and African styles eventually transformed into Bluegrass. Computational ethnomusicologists are working on tools that will provide the answers to these questions, and many more.”

Folk Music Analysis is an idea sharing forum delivered in partnership with the Analytical Approaches to World Music journal, and saw attendees from South America, Asia, North America and Europe attend discussions and live music sessions at the Royal Birmingham Conservatoire, Millennium Point, The Woodman and The Spotted Dog, including from the acclaimed 50+ member band Conservatoire Folk Ensemble, led by Joe Broughton [pictured in attached].


Conservatoire Folk Ensemble – Sleepy Maggie becomes mini-album

Sleepy Maggie

It’s been a heady 12 months for The Conservatoire Folk Ensemble. Their acclaimed studio album, Painted, racked up a string of jaw-dropping reviews, and the collective also guested on Fairport Convention’s acclaimed 50:50@50 album.

Meanwhile, in their hometown of Birmingham the full band stunned commuters at Britain’s busiest railway station with a pop-up gig, and they wowed audiences at one of the biggest St Patrick’s Day celebrations outside of Ireland – for the second consecutive year.

Now the stage-shaking 50-plus ensemble is heading out for their annual summer tour (which includes the fifth edition of their very own festival, Power Folk), and are set to release a remarkable new mini-album, Sleepy Maggie + Remixes Reworkings and Rarities.

A four-and-a-half-minute instrumental, lead track Sleepy Maggie perfectly encapsulates the ensemble’s richly layered and powerful sound. With sweeping strings, rolling percussion, tight brass, a fleeting guitar solo, and an unexpected Eastern vocal incursion, it’s a dramatic track, both muscular and delicate, oozing global influences.

Says band leader Joe Broughton: “’Sleepy Maggie’ is a traditional tune which we’ve deconstructed and rearranged in typical ensemble fashion, pulling in ideas from various members of the ensemble to create something that sounds very very different from versions you might have heard before. The roots of the tune remain – which you can hear in the fiddles at the beginning – but the new arrangement heads off to some interesting and surprising places.

“It’s supposed to be deliciously over the top!”

The deconstruction continues with a series of surprising remixes and re-imaginings by various members of the ensemble that pushes Sleepy Maggie further into new musical territories.

“The idea of remixing the track is very much in keeping with the group’s approach to making music, of using what could be a straight-forward melody as the basis for a tune and seeing how that can be developed, or pushed, to create something that still acknowledges the original source, but is somehow transformed into something new and exciting,” explains Joe, adding the release took on a life of its own.

“This project started out as the single ‘Sleepy Maggie’, and after I mentioned the possibility of doing some remixes, in the pub after rehearsal one night, the ideas started flowing. Before I knew it I had club remixes, Chinese groove-monsters, full on drum’n’bass and more flowing into my inbox. I thought perhaps we could release a few of these with the single, but they just kept on coming.”

Hence it’s now a 10-track ‘mini-album’!

Formed in 1997 by fiddle player and arranger Joe (The Urban Folk Quartet, The Albion Band, Joss Stone), The Conservatoire Folk Ensemble’s energetic live sets are a sight to behold, featuring a 15-piece horn section, four cello players, five percussionists and four electric guitarists, plus fiddles, flutes, clarinets, euphonium, tuba, and accordion! They also all sing too.

Though rooted in traditional folk tunes, the personal influences and interests of each member shapes the set-list, pulling in everything from full-on rock grooves, to funk, jazz, hip-hop and reggae, to sounds from Eastern Europe and Asia. It’s a sound they’ve dubbed ‘Power Folk’.

In their 21 years, the band – based at the prestigious Royal Birmingham Conservatoire – have packed out the Royal Albert Hall, and played some of the biggest festivals in the UK.

2018 sees the ensemble return to Kendal Calling (with The Libertines and Run DMC) and Green Man (with The War On Drugs and Fleet Foxes), as well as bring together their full line-up for their one-day mini-festival, Power Folk 5 (10 June, Birmingham).

Says Joe: “Our main aim is to send people home a little happier than when they arrived.”

Sleepy Maggie + Remixes Reworkings and Rarities is released on 10 June 2018 (CD, digital download, streaming via SAE Records), and the band tour from May through to July.

Artists’ website:

‘Sleepy Maggie’:


PaintedI’ve seen Joe Broughton’s Conservatoire Folk Ensemble on stage just once and it was an exciting experience. It was a small theatre and I reckon there were more people on stage than there were in the audience – what a sound – and Joe says that they might have turned it up a bit on Painted, their first studio venture, recorded to celebrate their twentieth anniversary. The CFE is an international band and its composition is dependent on which students study the module that leads to its formation for the annual summer tour. There are fifty-six musicians on this album drawn from all over Europe and the far east; that’s a full orchestra of strings, woodwinds and brass plus the guitars, basses and percussion drawn from the modern folk scene.

So, what’s good? Pretty much everything, really. The set begins with two traditional Irish tunes, ‘Banish Misfortune/Poll Ha’Penny’ followed by Sal Broughton’s ‘The Graduate’, a piece that embodies the ethos of the Ensemble – there are no auditions, just a commitment to hard work. ‘Cant De Batre’ and ‘Pimentons Torrats Amb Oli I Sal’ are both Spanish, the latter written by and both arranged by Daniel Blanco Albert. Then it’s back to the Irish and ‘Fairy Dance’ and all I can say is that these are bloody powerful fairies.

Rosie Tunley sings ‘Rain And Snow’, the song from the USA that has so many titles and compasses so many floating verses and now the record is reaching its peak. ‘The Butterfly/Kodo’, the latter written by Yoshida Kenichi, is magnificent and I love the way that ‘Tek Bir Güneşin Altinada Yürüyoruz’ is handed over to the brass section to do with as they will. Julie Claire takes lead vocal on Kevin Dempsey’s version of ‘William Taylor’ before the set closes with the jazzy ‘Две ръченици/Lattinmore’.

In a live show the CFE would just be warming up for the second set but they know to leave us wanting more. They will be on tour through until August and I urge you to seek them out.

Dai Jeffries

Artists’ website:

There are no videos of this year’s ensemble yet but here are last year’s team playing ‘Fairy Dance’ at their final performance:

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