Using online music databases and computational analysis to understand attitudes towards death

Mollenhorst, Janieke
Tilburg University, Netherlands, The

Table of contents

1. Background

In the Netherlands the first crematorium opened in 1913. Since the beginning of the 21 st century, there have been more cremations than burials. During the 100 years of cremation rituals, cultural attitudes towards death have changed, due to processes of secularisation and individualisation, and against the background of a superdiversed culture (Cappers, 2012; Wojtkowiak, 2012; Venbrux, Peelen & Altena, 2009). This change, which is an ongoing process, becomes clearly visible in both funeral rituals (van Tongeren, 2007; Venbrux, Heessels & Bolt, 2008), and music as part of cremation rituals. Since music is strongly connected to identities, (sub-)cultures and lifestyles, it reflects and shapes the way we deal with death.

Nowadays, bereaved relatives select the music that will be listened to during a cremation ritual. This music is often derived from online playlists, provided by crematoriums and funeral directors. These playlists contain hundreds or thousands of tracks of music from various genres and cultures. One of the research questions is: what are the characteristics of the music of the crematorium playlists? How are these characteristics related to lifestyles and deathstyles?

2. Pilot study

In a pilot study (Mollenhorst, Hoondert & van Zaanen, 2016), conducted in 2014-2015, we used the playlist of the crematorium in Tilburg, a city in the South of the Netherlands. This playlists contains 3707 tracks. To analyse this playlist on musical parameters, we made use of computational methods. We compared the musical parameters found in the crematorium playlist with those found in two popular Dutch charts (Top40 and Top2000). The analysis was made possible by the Echo Nest, a company that refers to itself as a ‘music intelligence company’. Echo Nest provides all kinds of musical information when given the name of the performing artist and the title of a song.

We matched the tracks of the Tilburg crematorium playlists with the songs known by Echo Nest, and found that the crematoriums tracks had a significant lower tempo, lower valence and lower energy than those in the Top40 and Top2000. Next to that, surprisingly, the crematorium playlist contained a significant higher percentage of songs in a major key (79,8%) than the popular charts (69,8% and 75,8%). By comparing these results with results of earlier research in the field of music and emotion (Gabrielsson & Lindström, 2010), we found that these musical parameters in the crematorium playlist point to the following key words: serene, solemn and tenderly. This corresponds to the way Dutch people tend to say farewell and to the way crematoria and funeral homes are being (re) decorated (Cramwinckel, 2011; Klaassens & Grootte 2012, 2014).

3. Chances for digital humanities

The database of Echo Nest should be improved by supplementing musical characteristics of more songs (of various genres). After this, the database can be used for analysis and creation of other playlists in various context (e.g. Spotify). Other techniques from computational musicology and textual analysis can also contribute to this.
By integrating this method, we take music more serious, by researching both textual and musical characteristics. New in this type of research is the relation between musical-computational analysis and culture: we consider music as a meaning-making practice, a way of ‘understanding the world’. In doing so, we don’t only look at music, but we also learn from music.

Appendix A

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  6. Mollenhorst, Janieke / Hoondert, Martin J.M. / van Zaanen, Menno M. (2016): „Musical parameters in the playlist of a Dutch crematorium”, in: Mortality 21, 2 (forth coming). DOI:10.1080/13576275.2016.1138935.
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