Playground Projects

Perforated Discs


We came up with a system that turns old melodies into midi files.


In the mid-19th century, before gramophones and vinyl records had been invented, music was often reproduced using perforated discs made of cardboard or metal. These discs didn’t actually have any sound recorded on them; they simply contained physical instructions to tell a special player which notes to play.

 

Rescuing muted music

The concept of standardized technology wasn’t yet popular either, so each disc manufacturer also had their own player. With the fast changes in sound technology, these perforated discs and their players were quickly made obsolete.

In 2012 we ran into the director of music and audiovisuals at the Spanish National Library (BNE), who told us that the library had a stockpile of perforated discs in storage, but that they had never been listened to. We had a new challenge; rescue the music from these silenced discs.

Then the BNE director told us the single and indisputable condition of the project: As part of the historical patrimony of the BNE, we weren’t allowed to touch the discs.

How do you reproduce physical instructions for music without touching them, and for a player that doesn’t exist? We started by taking a picture with the cellphone we had on hand…

We took the image back to the lab, studied the size and position of the perforations in the disc, and created an algorithm to assign a note and duration to each hole, sending instructions to a digital player that reproduced the notes.

The process looks like this… 

Once we’d created the technology to read these discs, the BNE sent us high-resolution images of the more than 100 perforated discs in their catalog, and we continued deciphering the lost music of the mid-19th century.

Thanks to this project, and with the collaboration of the Miguel de Cervantes Virtual Library, we continue working with the European Union’s IMPACT Project, aimed at the large-scale digitization of Europe’s printed patrimony.

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