Neumz

A 15th Century music manual for the 21st.

It starts at Jouques

The Problem

Odratek - a tech startup arm of Odradek Records - approached us with their most ambitious project yet: organize the complete repetoire of Gregorian chant, and create an app where anyone can listen along through the ever-changing daily offices.

What else should it do?

  • Play through 7,000 hours of recorded audio.
  • Translate it into half a dozen languages.
  • Make it work for any device.
  • And most importantly, build an on-the-fly karaoke library using 15th century music notation.
  • Oh - and share it with one billion catholics.

The nuns at Notre Dame de Fidelite in the south of France practice Gregorian chant, by meeting to pray and sing through a seven offices per day. They are one of only a handful of communities that still practice this, and they were ready to open their cloister (digitally) and share share their work with the world.

Odratek set up a remote recording system that the sisters run themselves, capturing up to six hours of audio per day. Then Neumz steps in.

It starts at Jouques

Strategy and Planning

The first challenge: how to organize all of this? To keep everything straight now, the sisters use five books of songs and prayers, as well as a custom agenda printed out for each day. How could we build a system that captures all of this?

Deep Dive

We started by visiting Jouques, where we met the sisters, a team of world-class experts in gregorian chant, and the Odratek recording team. Over a week, we got a bootcamp in chant, and realized: this is really, really complicated.

Build a Process

But with an iterative process we designed a system that helps the team:

  • build out music notation for each chant
  • automatically translate the notation into Latin
  • then translate the Latin into six other languages
  • from there, sync the Latin text to the audio recording

And at each of those automated steps, the expert team can step in and fine-tune or adjust the system's choices. Then the experts build component chants into offices, offices into liturgical days, and days into a full calendar.

Chant is complicated. There's not a fixed set of songs. The chants that get performed vary day-by-day, hour-by-hour, and change based on the day of the week, the church calendar, the liturgical season, the season, and even by who is in the room. The whole complicated machinery of fixed and movable feasts interacts here, and the whole cycle takes three years before anything repeats reliably.

It starts at Jouques

Results

Engineering

From an engineering perspective this has presented new challenges! How to programatically generate music notation in a format that hasn't been used in hundreds of years? How to scroll through the chant, karaoke-style, at the right speed, when Gregorian chant doesn't even have a meter? (Ashley wrote a great blog post about this challenge!)

Also, the usual engineering challenges: build a web app, an iOS app, and an Android experience? Handle accounts and payments globally?

Design

Design was exciting - a fresh approach on Gregorian chant, one that was accessible but not stuffy. We designed and built the brand, logo, and interfaces for all the devices.

Translations

Translations was a challenge! Modern dictation tools don't handle monoton choral Latin (yet!) The translator team was spending repetitive hours on the comon passages, but we build a subcomponent translation tool for the experts that cut their time required in half and doubled their output.

A powerful tool for a billion users

The end result of all this complicated project? We're still building and improving Neumz along with the Ordatek team, but so far it's made a big splash. The press ate it up:

It starts at Jouques