Using pitch detection to graph the opening glissando in "Rhapsody in Blue"
Branch: master
Clone or download
Fetching latest commit…
Cannot retrieve the latest commit at this time.
Type Name Latest commit message Commit time
Failed to load latest commit information.

Plotting Gershwin

Using pitch detection to graph the opening glissando in "Rhapsody in Blue"


George Gershwin's Rhapsody in Blue, which debuted in 1924, famously beginnings with a clarinet trill that launches into a glissando in which the clarinets bends the pitch all the way from a low B$flat; to a high B♭, spanning two octaves in a continuous pitch. It's up to the clarinetist how she wants to get there--in technical terms, she chooses which easing function to apply to the tween. These scripts plot five different versions to visualize how different players attack this challenge.


You'll need Node and Python 3, which you can download directly or install via Homebrew. Then install the dependencies.

pip install -r requirements.txt #may require sudo or `pip3` depending on your setup
npm install

You also need the ffmpeg framework, which you can get from Homebrew on a Mac:

brew install ffmpeg


Getting the clips

The get_audio.js script downloads the YouTube url, extracts just the portion of the audio you specify, and deletes the downloaded videos

  • node get_audio.js --name=columbia --url= --start=3 --end=8
  • node get_audio.js --name=philadelphia --url= --start=3 --end=9
  • node get_audio.js --name=royal --url= --start=3 --end=8
  • node get_audio.js --name=slovak --url= --start=5 --end=8
  • node get_audio.js --name=london --url= --start=6 --end=12

(I cleaned up each sample in Audacity to make sure it starts right at the beginning of the glissando and ends right before the rest of the orchestra joins in)

Generating the frequencies

I would prefer to have used Node here, but the Python bindings to the aubio toolkit have more sophisticated pitch detection than the leading Node module, which is still working on implementing the "YIN w/ FFT" algorithm.

The Python script detects the pitch at intervals of 1024 frames. The output is very good but inevitably contains some outliers. For example, here's the raw output for the Columbia Symphony Orchestra:

Columbia Symphony Orchestra, Raw

To correct for the noise, I wrote a simple algorithm to guess where the outliers ought to be. It's not perfect and arguably overfits some of the time, but it's reasonably consistent across the five samples:

# first, identify all the outliers and move them closer to the correct position
corrected = [pitches[0]]
for i in range(1, len(pitches)-1):
    diff = abs(pitches[i]-corrected[i-1]) / corrected[i-1]
    # if there's a huge difference, match the previous note. Otherwise, take the average.
    if diff > 0.4:
        corrected += [corrected[i-1]]
    elif diff > 0.25:
        average = (corrected[i-1] + pitches[i+1]) / 2
        corrected += [average]
        corrected += [pitches[i]]
# then iterate over the corrected array, gradually bringing the outliers into line
for x in range(2,20):
    arr = corrected
    for i in range(1, len(arr)-1):
        diff = abs(arr[i] - arr[i+1]) / arr[i+1]
        threshold = 1 - 0.06 * x # the value of 0.06 was determined by pure trial-and-error. Raising causes overfitting
        if diff > threshold:
            average = (arr[i-1] + arr[i+1]) / 2
            #print(x, i, threshold, arr[i], corrected[i-1], diff, average)
            corrected[i] = average

Here's how it fixes up the Columbia output. The red dots are the corrected frequencies and the green dots are the original.

Columbia Symphony Orchestra, Smoothed

The Python script outputs three files: Two images in the output/images directory that graph the algorithm's raw output and smoothed output, and a csv file in the output/data directory that contains the smoothed frequency for each point.

Here are the command-line scripts for all five samples. (Again, depending on your system, you may need to run python3)

  • python --name=columbia --title="Columbia Symphony Orchestra"
  • python --name=philadelphia --title="Philadelphia Orchestra"
  • python --name=royal --title="Royal Philharmonic Orchestra"
  • python --name=slovak --title="Slovak National Philharmonic Orchestra"
  • python --name=london --title="London Symphony Orchestra"

Let's compare them and see how they stack up!


This writes an image called compare.png to the output/images directory and, for the sake of convenience, writes a JSON files called glissandos.json to the output/data directory.

All Five Glissandos

Generating waves from the data

To test if we did this right, we can generate .wav files from the outputted data:

node make_wave.js --name=columbia

That outputs a file called columbia.wav to the output/sounds directory.