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Chord Recognition in Symbolic Music: A Segmental CRF Model, Segment-Level Features, and Comparative Evaluations on Classical and Popular Music


Kristen Masada ,

Ohio University, US
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Razvan Bunescu

Ohio University, US
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We present a new approach to harmonic analysis that is trained to segment music into a sequence of chord spans tagged with chord labels. Formulated as a semi-Markov Conditional Random Field (semi-CRF), this joint segmentation and labeling approach enables the use of a rich set of segment-level features, such as segment purity and chord coverage, that capture the extent to which the events in an entire segment of music are compatible with a candidate chord label. The new chord recognition model is evaluated extensively on three corpora of Western classical music and a newly created corpus of rock music. Experimental results show that the semi-CRF model performs substantially better than previous approaches when trained on a sufficient number of labeled examples and remains competitive when the amount of training data is limited.
How to Cite: Masada, K. and Bunescu, R., 2019. Chord Recognition in Symbolic Music: A Segmental CRF Model, Segment-Level Features, and Comparative Evaluations on Classical and Popular Music. Transactions of the International Society for Music Information Retrieval, 2(1), pp.1–13. DOI:
  Published on 03 Jan 2019
 Accepted on 22 Oct 2018            Submitted on 27 Apr 2018

1. Introduction and Motivation

Harmonic analysis is an important step towards creating high-level representations of tonal music. High-level structural relationships form an essential component of music analysis, whose aim is to achieve a deep understanding of how music works. At its most basic level, harmonic analysis of music in symbolic form requires the partitioning of a musical input into segments along the time dimension, such that the notes in each segment correspond to a musical chord. This chord recognition task can often be time consuming and cognitively demanding, hence the utility of computer-based implementations. Reflecting historical trends in artificial intelligence, automatic approaches to harmonic analysis have evolved from purely grammar-based and rule-based systems (Winograd, 1968; Maxwell, 1992), to systems employing weighted rules and optimization algorithms (Temperley and Sleator, 1999; Pardo and Birmingham, 2002; Scholz and Ramalho, 2008; Rocher et al., 2009), to data driven approaches based on supervised machine learning (ML) (Raphael and Stoddard, 2003; Radicioni and Esposito, 2010). Due to their requirements for annotated data, ML approaches have also led to the development of music analysis datasets containing a large number of manually annotated harmonic structures, such as the 60 Bach chorales introduced by Radicioni and Esposito (2010), and the 27 themes and variations of TAVERN (Devaney et al., 2015).

In this work, we consider the music to be in symbolic form, i.e. as a collection of notes specified in terms of onset, offset, pitch, and metrical position. Symbolic representations can be extracted from formats such as MIDI, kern, or MusicXML. A relatively common strategy in ML approaches to chord recognition in symbolic music is to break the musical input into a sequence of short duration spans and then train sequence tagging algorithms such as Hidden Markov Models (HMMs) to assign a chord label to each span in the sequence (bottom of Figure 1). The spans can result from quantization using a fixed musical period such as half a measure (Raphael and Stoddard, 2003). Alternatively, they can be constructed from consecutive note onsets and offsets (Radicioni and Esposito, 2010), as we also do in this paper. Variable-length chord segments are then created by joining consecutive spans labeled with the same chord symbol (at the top in Figure 1). A significant drawback of these short-span tagging approaches is that they do not explicitly model candidate segments during training and inference, consequently they cannot use segment-level features. Such features are needed, for example, to identify figuration notes (Appendix B) or to help label segments that do not start with the root note. The chordal analysis system of Pardo and Birmingham (2002) is an example where the assignment of chords to segments takes into account segment-based features, however the features have pre-defined weights and it uses a processing pipeline where segmentation is done independently of chord labeling.

Figure 1 

Segment-based recognition (top) vs. event-based recognition (bottom) on measures 11 and 12 from Beethoven WoO68, using note onsets and offsets to create event boundaries.

In this paper, we propose a machine learning approach to chord recognition formulated under the framework of semi-Markov Conditional Random Fields (semi-CRFs). Also called segmental CRFs, this class of probabilistic graphical models can be trained to do joint segmentation and labeling of symbolic music (Section 2), using efficient Viterbi-based inference algorithms whose time complexity is linear in the length of the input. The system employs a set of chord labels (Section 3) that correspond to the main types of tonal music chords (Appendix A) found in the evaluation datasets. Compared to HMMs and sequential CRFs which label the events in a sequence, segmental CRFs label candidate segments, as such they can exploit segment-level features. Correspondingly, we define a rich set of features that capture the extent to which the events in an entire segment of music are compatible with a candidate chord label (Section 4). The semi-CRF model incorporating these features is evaluated on three Western classical music datasets and a newly created dataset of Western pop music (Section 5). Experimental comparisons with two previous chord recognition models show that segmental CRFs obtain substantial improvements in performance on the three larger datasets, while also being competitive with the previous approaches on the smaller dataset (Section 6).

2. Semi-CRF Model for Chord Recognition

Since harmonic changes may occur only when notes begin or end, we first create a sorted list of all the note onsets and offsets in the input music, i.e. the list of partition points (Pardo and Birmingham 2002), shown as vertical dotted lines in Figure 1. A basic music event (Radicioni and Esposito, 2010) is then defined as the set of pitches sounding in the time interval between two consecutive partition points. As an example, Table 1 provides the pitches and overall duration for each event shown in Figure 2. The segment number and chord label associated with each event are also included. Not shown in this table is a boolean value for each pitch indicating whether or not it is held over from the previous event. For instance, this value would be false for C5 and E5 appearing in event e5, but true for C5 and E5 in event e6.

Table 1

Input representation for measure 12 from Beethoven WoO68, showing the pitches and duration for each event, as well as the corresponding segment and label, where G7 stands for G:maj:add7, and C stands for C:maj.

Seg. Label Event Pitches Len.

s1 G7 e1 G3, B3, D4, G5 1/8
G7 e2 G3, B3, D4, F5 1/8
G7 e3 B4, D5 3/16
G7 e4 B4, D5 1/16

s2 C e5 C4, C5, E5 1/8
C e6 G3, C5, E5 1/8
C e7 E3, G4, C5, E5 1/8
C e8 C3, G4, C5, E5 1/8
Figure 2 

Segment and labels (top) vs. events (bottom) for measure 12 from Beethoven WoO68.

Let s = ⟨s1, s2, …, sK⟩ denote a segmentation of the musical input x, where a segment sk = ⟨sk.f, sk.l⟩ is identified by the positions sk.f and sk.l of its first and last events, respectively. Let y = ⟨y1, y2, …, yK⟩ be the vector of chord labels corresponding to the segmentation s. A semi-Markov CRF (Sarawagi and Cohen, 2004) defines a probability distribution over segmentations and their labels as shown in Equations 1 and 2. Here, the global segmentation feature vector F decomposes as a sum of local segment feature vectors f(sk, yk, yk–1, x), with label y0 set to a constant “no chord” value.


where Z(x)=Σs,yewTF(s,y,x) and w is a vector of parameters.

Following Muis and Lu (Muis and Lu, 2016), for faster inference, we further restrict the local segment features to two types: segment-label featuresf(sk, yk, x) that depend on the segment and its label, and label transition featuresg(yk, yk–1, x) that depend on the labels of the current and previous segments. The corresponding probability distribution over segmentations is shown in Equations 3 to 5, which use two vectors of parameters: w for segment-label features and u for transition features.


Given an arbitrary segment s and a label y, the vector of segment-label features can be written as f(s, y, x) = [f1(s, y), …, f|f|(s, y)], where the input x is left implicit in order to compress the notation. Similarly, given arbitrary labels y and y’, the vector of label transition features can be written as g(y, y’, x) = [g1(y, y’), …, g|g|(y, y’)]. In Section 4 we describe the set of segment-label features fi(s, y) and label transition features gj(y, y’) that are used in our semi-CRF chord recognition system.

As probabilistic graphical models, semi-CRFs can be represented using factor graphs, as illustrated in Figure 3. Factor graphs (Kschischang et al., 2001) are bipartite graphs that express how a global function (e.g. P(s, y|x, w, u)) of many variables (e.g. sk, yk, and x) factorizes into a product of local functions, or factors, (e.g. f and g) defined over fewer variables.

Figure 3 

Factor graph representation of the semi-CRF.

Equations 4 and 5 show that the contribution of any given feature to the final log-likelihood score is given by summing up its value over all the segments (for local features f) or segment pairs (for local features g). This design choice stems from two assumptions. First, we adopt the stationarity assumption, according to which the segment-label feature distribution does not change with the position in the music. Second, we use the Markov assumption, which implies that the label of a segment depends only on its boundaries and the labels of the adjacent segments. This assumption leads to the factorization of the probability distribution into a product of potentials. Both the stationarity assumption and the Markov assumption are commonly used in ML models for structured outputs, such as linear CRFs (Lafferty et al., 2001), semi-CRFs (Sarawagi and Cohen, 2004), HMMs (Rabiner, 1989), structural SVMs (Tsochantaridis et al., 2004), or the structured perceptron (Collins, 2002) used in HMPerceptron. These assumptions lead to summing the same feature over multiple substructures in the overall output score, which makes inference and learning tractable using dynamic programming.

The inference problem for semi-CRFs refers to finding the most likely segmentation ŝ and its labeling ŷ for an input x, given the model parameters. For the weak semi-CRF model in Equation 3, this corresponds to:


The maximum is taken over all possible labeled segmentations of the input, up to a maximum segment length. Correspondingly, s and y can be seen as “candidate” segmentations and “candidate” labelings, respectively. Their number is exponential in the length of the input, which rules out a brute-force search. However, due to the factorization into vectors of local features fi(s, y) and gj(y, y’), it can be shown that the optimization problem from Equation 8 can be solved with a semi-Markov analogue of the usual Viterbi algorithm. Let the constant L be a maximum segment length. Following (Sarawagi and Cohen, 2004), let V(i, y) denote the largest value wTF(s̃, ỹ, x) + uTG(s̃, ỹ, x)} of a partial segmentation such that its last segment ends at position i and has label y. Then V(i, y) can be computed with the following dynamic programming recursion for i = 1, 2, …, |x|:


where the base cases are V(0, y) = 0 and V(j, y) = -∞ if j < 0, and ⟨i – l + 1, i⟩ denotes the segment starting at position i – l + 1 and ending at position i. Once V(|x|, y) is computed for all labels y, the best labeled segmentation can be recovered in linear time by following the path traced by maxy V(|x|, y).

The learning problem for semi-CRFs refers to finding the model parameters that maximize the likelihood over a set of training sequences T={xn,sn,yn}n=1N. Usually this is done by minimizing the negative log-likelihood –L(T; w, u) and an L2 regularization term, as shown below for weak semi-CRFs:


This is a convex optimization problem, which is solved with the L-BFGS procedure in the StatNLP package used to implement our system. The partition function Z(x) and the feature expectations that appear in the gradient of the objective function are computed efficiently using a dynamic programming algorithm similar to the forward-backward procedure (Sarawagi and Cohen, 2004).

3. Chord Recognition Labels

A chord is a group of notes that form a cohesive harmonic unit to the listener when sounding simultaneously (Aldwell et al., 2011). As explained in Appendix A, we design our system to handle the following types of chords: triads, augmented 6th chords, suspended chords, and power chords. The chord labels used in previous chord recognition research range from coarse grained labels that indicate only the chord root (Temperley and Sleator, 1999) to fine grained labels that capture mode, inversions, added and missing notes (Harte, 2010), and even chord function (Devaney et al., 2015). Here we follow the middle ground proposed by Radicioni and Esposito (2010) and define a core set of labels for triads that encode the chord root (12 pitch classes), the mode (major, minor, diminished), and the added note (none, fourth, sixth, seventh), for a total of 144 different labels. For example, the label C-major-none for a simple C major triad corresponds to the combination of a root of C with a mode of major and no added note. This is different from the label C-major-seventh for a C major seventh chord, which corresponds to the combination of a root of C with a mode of major and an added note of seventh. Note that there is only one generic type of added seventh note, irrespective of whether the interval is a major, minor, or diminished seventh, which means that a C major seventh chord and a C dominant seventh chord are mapped to the same label. However, once the system recognizes a chord with an added seventh, determining whether it is a major, minor, or diminished seventh can be done accurately in a simple post-processing step: determine if the chord contains a non figuration note (defined in Appendix B) that is 11, 10, or 9 half steps from the root, respectively, inverted or not, modulo 12. Once the type of the seventh interval is determined, it is straightforward to determine the type of seventh chord (dominant, major, minor, minor-major, fully diminished, or half-diminished) based on the mode of the chord (major, minor, or diminished).

Augmented sixth chords are modeled through a set of 36 labels that capture the lowest note (12 pitch classes) and the 3 types (Appendix A.2). Similarly, suspended and power chords are modeled through a set of 48 labels that capture the root note (12 pitch classes) and the 4 types (Appendix A.3).

Because the labels do not encode for function, the model does not require knowing the key in which the input was written. While the number of labels may seem large, the number of parameters in our model is largely independent of the number of labels. This is because we design the chord recognition features (Section 4) to not test for the chord root, which also enables the system to recognize chords that were not seen during training. The decision to not use the key context was partly motivated by the fact that 3 of the 4 datasets we used for experimental evaluation do not have functional annotations (see Section 5). Additionally, complete key annotation can be difficult to perform, both manually and automatically. Key changes occur gradually, thus making it difficult to determine the exact location where one key ends and another begins (Papadopoulos and Peeters, 2009). This makes locating modulations and tonicizations difficult and also hard to evaluate (Gómez, 2006). At the same time, we recognize that harmonic analysis is not complete without functional analysis. Functional analysis features could also benefit the basic chord recognition task described in this paper. In particular, the chord transition features that we define in Appendix C.4 depend on the absolute distance in half steps between the roots of the chords. However, a V-I transition has a different distribution than a I-IV transition, even though the root distance is the same. Chord transition distributions also differ between minor and major keys. As such, using key context could further improve chord recognition.

4. Chord Recognition Features

The semi-CRF model uses five major types of features, as described in detail in Appendix C. Segment purity features compute the percentage of segment notes that belong to a given chord (Appendix C.1). We include these on the grounds that segments with a higher purity with respect to a chord are more likely to be labeled with that chord. Chord coverage features determine if each note in a given chord appears at least once in the segment (Appendix C.2). Similar to segment purity, if the segment covers a higher percentage of the chord’s notes, it is more likely to be labeled with that chord. Bass features determine which note of a given chord appears as the bass in the segment (Appendix C.3). For a correctly labeled segment, its bass note often matches the root of its chord label. If the bass note instead matches the chord’s third or fifth, or is an added dissonance, this may indicate that the chord y is inverted or incorrect. Chord bigram features capture chord transition information (Appendix C.4). These features are useful in that the arrangement of chords in chord progressions is an important component of harmonic syntax. Finally, we include metrical accent features for chord changes, as chord segments are more likely to begin on accented beats (Appendix C.5).

5. Chord Recognition Datasets

For evaluation, we used four chord recognition datasets:

  1. BaCh: this is the Bach Choral Harmony Dataset, a corpus of 60 four-part Bach chorales that contains 5,664 events and 3,090 segments in total (Radicioni and Esposito, 2010).
  2. TAVERN: this is a corpus of 27 complete sets of themes and variations for piano, composed by Mozart and Beethoven. It consists of 63,876 events and 12,802 segments overall (Devaney et al., 2015).
  3. KP Corpus: the Kostka-Payne corpus is a dataset of 46 excerpts compiled by Bryan Pardo from Kostka and Payne’s music theory textbook. It contains 3,888 events and 911 segments (Kostka and Payne, 1984).
  4. Rock: this is a corpus of 59 pop and rock songs that we compiled from Hal Leonard’s The Best Rock Songs Ever (Easy Piano) songbook. It is 25,621 events and 4,221 segments in length.

5.1. The Bach Chorale (BaCh) Dataset

The BaCh corpus has been annotated by a human expert with chord labels, using the set of triad labels described in Section 3. Of the 144 possible labels, 102 appear in the dataset and of these only 68 appear 5 times or more. Some of the chord labels used in the manual annotation are enharmonic, e.g. C-sharp major and D-flat major, or D-sharp major and E-flat major. Reliably producing one of two enharmonic chords cannot be expected from a system that is agnostic of the key context. Therefore, we normalize the chord labels and for each mode we define a set of 12 canonical roots, one for each scale degree. When two enharmonic chords are available for a given scale degree, we selected the one with the fewest sharps or flats in the corresponding key signature. Consequently, for the major mode we use the canonical root set {C, Db, D, Eb, E, F, Gb, G, Ab, A, Bb, B}, whereas for the minor and diminished modes we used the root set {C, C#, D, D#, E, F, F#, G, G#, A, Bb, B}. Thus, if a chord is manually labeled as C-sharp major, the label is automatically changed to the enharmonic D-flat major. The actual chord notes used in the music are left unchanged. Whether they are spelled with sharps or flats is immaterial, as long as they are enharmonic with the root, third, fifth, or added note of the labeled chord. After performing enharmonic normalization on the chords in the dataset, 90 labels remain.

5.2. The TAVERN Dataset

The TAVERN dataset1 currently contains 17 works by Beethoven (181 variations) and 10 by Mozart (100 variations). The themes and variations are divided into a total of 1,060 phrases, 939 in major and 121 in minor. The pieces have two levels of segmentations: chords and phrases. The chords are annotated with Roman numerals, using the Humdrum representation for functional harmony.2 When finished, each phrase will have annotations from two different experts, with a third expert adjudicating cases of disagreement between the two. After adjudication, a unique annotation of each phrase is created and joined with the note data into a combined file encoded in standard **kern format. However, many pieces do not currently have the second annotation or the adjudicated version. Consequently, we only used the first annotation for each of the 27 sets. Furthermore, since our chord recognition approach is key agnostic, we developed a script that automatically translated the Roman numeral notation into the key-independent canonical set of labels used in BaCh. Because the TAVERN annotation does not mark added fourth notes, the only added chords that were generated by the translation script were those containing sixths and sevenths. This results in a set of 108 possible labels, of which 69 appear in the dataset.

5.3. The Kostka and Payne Corpus

The Kostka-Payne (KP) corpus3 does not contain chords with added fourth or sixth notes. However, it includes fine-grained chord types that are outside of the label set of triads described in Section 3, such as fully and half-diminished seventh chords, dominant seventh chords, and dominant seventh flat ninth chords. We map these seventh chord variants to the generic seventh chords, as discussed in Section 3. Chords with ninth intervals are mapped to the corresponding chord without the ninth in our label set. The KP Corpus also contains the three types of augmented 6th chords introduced in Appendix A.2. Thus, by extending our chord set to include augmented 6th labels, there are 12 roots × 3 triad modes × 2 added notes + 12 bass notes × 3 aug6 modes = 108 possible labels overall. Of these, 76 appear in the dataset.

A number of MIDI files in the KP corpus contain unlabeled sections at the beginning of the excerpt. These sections also appear as unlabeled in the original Kostka-Payne textbook. We omitted these sections from our evaluation, and also did not include them in the KP Corpus event and segment counts. Bryan Pardo’s original MIDI files for the KP Corpus also contain several missing chords, as well as chord labels that are shifted from their true onsets. We used chord and beat list files sent to us by David Temperley to correct these mistakes.

5.4. The Rock Dataset

To evaluate the system’s ability to recognize chords in a different genre, we compiled a corpus of 59 pop and rock songs from Hal Leonard’s The Best Rock Songs Ever (Easy Piano) songbook. Like the KP Corpus, the Rock dataset contains chords with added ninths—including major ninth chords and dominant seventh chords with a sharpened ninth—as well as inverted chords. We omit the ninth and inversion numbers in these cases. Unique from the other datasets, the Rock dataset also possesses suspended and power chords. We extend our chord set to include these, adding suspended second, suspended fourth, dominant seventh suspended fourth, and power chords. We use the major mode canonical root set for suspended second and power chords and the minor canonical root set for suspended fourth chords, as this configuration produces the least number of accidentals. In all, there are 12 roots × 3 triad modes × 4 added notes + 12 roots × 4 sus and pow modes = 192 possible labels, with only 48 appearing in the dataset.

Similar to the KP Corpus, unlabeled segments occur at the beginning of some songs, which we omit from evaluation. Additionally, the Rock dataset uses an N.C. (i.e. no chord) label for some segments. We broke songs containing this label into subsections consisting of the segments occurring before and after each N.C. segment, discarding subsections less than three measures long.

To create the Rock dataset, we converted printed sheet music to MusicXML files using the optical music recognition (OMR) software PhotoScore.4 We noticed in the process of making the dataset that some of the originally annotated labels were incorrect. For instance, some segments with added note labels were missing the added note, while other segments were missing the root or were labeled with an incorrect mode. We automatically detected these cases and corrected each label by hand, considering context and genre-specific theory. We also omitted two songs (‘Takin’ Care of Business’ and ‘I Love Rock N’ Roll’) from the 61 songs in the original Hal Leonard songbook, the former because of its atonality and the latter because of a high percentage of mistakes in the original labels.

6. Experimental Evaluation

We implemented the semi-Markov CRF chord recognition system using a multi-threaded package5 that has been previously used for noun-phrase chunking of informal text (Muis and Lu, 2016). The maximum segment length used in the Viterbi procedure from Equation 9 was set to L = 20. At training time, segments that had more than L events were broken into segments of length L or less. At test time, the chord segmentation computed by the system was post-processed by consolidating any sequence of consecutive segments that had the same label into one long segment.

The following sections describe the experimental results obtained on the four datasets from Section 5 for: our semi-CRF system; Radicioni and Esposito’s perceptron-trained HMM system, HMPerceptron; and Temperley’s computational music system, Melisma Music Analyzer.6 When interpretting these results, it is important to consider a number of important differences among the three systems:

  • HMPerceptron and semi-CRF are data driven, therefore their performance depends on the number of training examples available. Both approaches are agnostic of music theoretic principles such as harmony changing primarily on strong metric positions, however they can learn such tendencies to the extent they are present in the training data.
  • Compared to HMPerceptron, semi-CRFs can use segment-level features. Besides this conceptual difference, the semi-CRF system described here uses a much larger number of features than the HMPerceptron system, which by itself can lead to better performance but may also require more training examples.
  • Both Melisma and HMPerceptron use metrical accents automatically induced by Melisma, whereas semi-CRF uses the Music21 accents derived from the notated meter. The more accurate notated meter could favor the semi-CRF system, although results in Section 6.1 show that, at least on BaCh, HMPerceptron does not benefit from using the notated meter.

Table 2 shows a summary of the full chord and root-level experimental results provided in this section. Two overall types of measures are used to evaluate a system’s performance on a dataset: event-level accuracy (AccE) and segment-level F-measure (FS). AccE simply refers to the percentage of events for which the system predicts the correct label out of the total number of events in the dataset. Segment-level F-measure is computed based on precision and recall, two evaluation measures commonly used in information retrieval (Baeza-Yates and Ribeiro-Neto, 1999), as follows:

Table 2

Dataset statistics and summary of results (event-level accuracy AccE and segment-level F-measure FS).

Dataset Statistics Full chord evaluation Root-level evaluation

semi-CRF HMPerceptron semi-CRF HMPerceptron Melisma

Events Seg.’s Labels AccE FS AccE FS AccE FS AccE FS AccE FS

BaCh 5,664 3,090 90 83.2 77.5 77.2 69.9 88.9 84.2 84.8 77.0 84.3 74.7
TAVERN 63,876 12,802 69 78.0 64.0 57.0 22.5 86.0 71.4 69.2 33.2 76.7 41.5
KPCorpus 3,888 911 76 73.0 53.0 72.9 45.4 79.3 59.0 79.0 51.9 81.9 62.2
Rock 25,621 4,221 48 70.1 55.9 61.3 34.6 86.1 65.1 80.7 42.9 77.9 36.3
  • Precision (PS) is the percentage of segments predicted correctly by the system out of the total number of segments that it predicts (correctly or incorrectly) for all pieces in the dataset.
  • Recall (RS) is the percentage of segments predicted correctly out of the total number of segments annotated in the original score for all pieces in the dataset.
  • F-Measure (FS) is the harmonic mean between PS and RS, i.e. FS = 2PSRS/(PS + RS).

Note that a predicted segment is considered correct if and only if both its boundaries and its label match those of a true segment.

6.1. BaCh Evaluation

We evaluated the semi-CRF model on BaCh using 10-fold cross validation: the 60 Bach chorales were randomly split into a set of 10 folds, and each fold was used as test data, with the other nine folds being used for training. We then evaluated HMPerceptron using the same randomly generated folds to enable comparison with our system. However, we noticed that the performance of HMPerceptron could vary significantly between two different random partitions of the data into folds. Therefore, we repeated the 10-fold cross validation experiment 10 times, each time shuffling the 60 Bach chorales and partitioning them into 10 folds. For each experiment, the test results from the 10 folds were pooled together and one value was computed for each performance measure (accuracy, precision, recall, and F-measure). The overall performance measures for the two systems were then computed by averaging over the 10 values (one from each experiment). The sample standard deviation for each performance measure was also computed over the same 10 values.

For semi-CRF, we computed the frequency of occurrence of each feature in the training data, using only the true segment boundaries and their labels. To speed up training and reduce overfitting, we only used features whose counts were at least 5. The performance measures were computed by averaging the results from the 10 test folds for each of the fold sets. Table 3 shows the averaged event-level and segment-level performance of the semi-CRF model, together with two versions of the HMPerceptron: HMPerceptron1, for which we do enharmonic normalization both on training and test data, similar to the normalization done for semi-CRF; and HMPerceptron2, which is the original system from (Radicioni and Esposito, 2010) that does enharmonic normalization only on test data.

Table 3

Comparative results (%) and standard deviations on the BaCh dataset, using Event-level accuracy (AccE) and Segment-level precision (PS), recall (RS), and F-measure (FS).

BaCh: Full chord evaluation

System AccE PS RS FS

semi-CRF 83.2
HMPerceptron1 77.2
HMPerceptron2 77.0

The semi-CRF model achieves a 6.2% improvement in event-level accuracy over the original model HMPerceptron2, which corresponds to a 27.0% relative error reduction.7 The improvement in accuracy over HMPerceptron1 is statistically significant at an averaged p-value of 0.001, using a one-tailed Welch’s t-test over the sample of 60 chorale results for each of the 10 fold sets. The improvement in segment-level performance is even more substantial, with a 7.8% absolute improvement in F-measure over the original HMPerceptron2 model, and a 7.6% improvement in F-measure over the HMPerceptron1 version, which is statistically significant at an averaged p-value of 0.002, using a one-tailed Welch’s t-test. The standard deviation values computed for both event-level accuracy and F-Measure are about one order of magnitude smaller for semi-CRF than for HMPerceptron, demonstrating that the semi-CRF is also more stable than the HMPerceptron. As HMPerceptron1 outperforms HMPerceptron2 in both event and segment-level accuracies, we will use HMPerceptron1 for the remaining evaluations and will simply refer to it as HMPerceptron.

We also evaluated performance in terms of predicting the correct root of the chord, e.g. if the true chord label were C:maj, a predicted chord of C:maj:add7 would still be considered correct, because it has the same root as the correct label. We performed this evaluation for semi-CRF, HMPerceptron, and the harmony component of Temperley’s Melisma. The results in Table 4 show that semi-CRF improves upon the event-level accuracy of HMPerceptron by 4.1%, producing a relative error reduction of 27.0%, and that of Melisma by 4.6%. Semi-CRF also achieves an F-measure that is 7.2% higher than HMPerceptron and 9.5% higher than Melisma. These improvements are statistically significant with a p-value of 0.01 using a one-tailed Welch’s t-test.

Table 4

Root only results (%) on the BaCh dataset, using Event-level accuracy (AccE) and Segment-level precision (PS), recall (RS), and F-measure (FS).

BaCh: Root only evaluation

System AccE PS RS FS

semi-CRF 88.9 85.4 83.0 84.2
HMPerceptron 84.8 78.0 76.2 77.0
Melisma 84.3 73.2 76.3 74.7

Metrical accent is important for harmonic analysis: chord changes tend to happen in strong metrical positions; figurations such as passing and neighboring tones appear in metrically weak positions, whereas suspensions appear on metrically strong beats. We verified empirically the importance of metrical accent by evaluating the semi-CRF model on a random fold set from the BaCh corpus with and without all accent-based features. The results from Table 5 show a substantial decrease in accuracy when the accent-based features are removed from the system.

Table 5

Full chord Event (AccE) and Segment-level (PS, RS, FS) results (%) on the BaCh dataset, with and without metrical accent features.

BaCh: Metrical accent evaluation of semi-CRF

System AccE PS RS FS

With accent 83.6 79.6 75.9 77.6
Without accent 77.7 74.8 68.0 71.2

Finally, we ran an evaluation of HMPerceptron on a random fold set from BaCh in two scenarios: HMPerceptron with Melisma metrical accent and HMPerceptron with Music21 accent. The results did not show a significant difference: with Melisma accent the event accuracy was 79.8% for an F-measure of 70.2%, whereas with Music21 accent the event accuracy was 79.8% for an F-measure of 70.3%. This negligible difference is likely due to the fact that HMPerceptron uses only coarse-grained accent information, i.e. whether a position is accented (Melisma accent 3 or more) or not accented (Melisma accent less than 3).

6.1.1. BaCh Error Analysis

Error analysis revealed wrong predictions being made on chords that contained dissonances that spanned the duration of the entire segment (e.g. a second above the root of the annotated chord), likely due to an insufficient number of such examples during training. Manual inspection also revealed a non-trivial number of cases in which we disagreed with the manually annotated chords, e.g. some chord labels were clear mistakes, as the corresponding segments did not contain any of the notes in the chord. This further illustrates the necessity of building music analysis datasets that are annotated by multiple experts, with adjudication steps akin to the ones followed by TAVERN.

6.2. TAVERN Evaluation

To evaluate on the TAVERN corpus, we created a fixed training-test split: 6 Beethoven sets (B063, B064, B065, B066, B068, B069) and 4 Mozart sets (K025, K179, K265, K353) were used for testing, while the remaining 11 Beethoven sets and 6 Mozart sets were used for training. All sets were normalized enharmonically before being used for training or testing. Table 6 shows the event-level and segment-level performance of the semi-CRF and HMPerceptron model on the TAVERN dataset.

Table 6

Event (AccE) and Segment-level (PS, RS, FS) results (%) on the TAVERN dataset.

TAVERN: Full chord evaluation

System AccE PS RS FS

semi-CRF 78.0 67.3 60.9 64.0
HMPerceptron 57.0 24.5 20.8 22.5

As shown in Table 6, semi-CRF outperforms HMPerceptron by 21.0% for event-level chord evaluation and by 41.5% in terms of chord-level F-measure. Root only evaluations provided in Table 7 reveal that semi-CRF improves upon HMPerceptron’s event-level root accuracy by 16.8% and Melisma’s event accuracy by 9.3%. Semi-CRF also produces a segment-level F-measure value that is 38.2% higher than that of HMPerceptron and 29.9% higher than that of Melisma. These improvements are statistically significant with a p-value of 0.01 using a one-tailed Welch’s t-test.

Table 7

Event (AccE) and Segment-level (PS, RS, FS) results (%) on the TAVERN dataset.

TAVERN: Root only evaluation

System AccE PS RS FS

semi-CRF 86.0 74.6 68.4 71.4
HMPerceptron 69.2 38.2 29.4 33.2
Melisma 76.7 42.3 40.7 41.5

6.2.1. TAVERN Error Analysis

The results in Tables 3 and 6 show that chord recognition is substantially more difficult in the TAVERN dataset than in BaCh. The comparatively lower performance on TAVERN is likely due to the substantially larger number of figurations and higher rhythmic diversity of the variations compared to the easier, mostly note-for-note texture of the chorales. Error analysis on TAVERN revealed many segments where the first event did not contain the root of the chord, such as in Figures 4 and 5. For such segments, HMPerceptron incorrectly assigned chord labels whose root matched the bass of this first event. Since a single wrongly labeled event invalidates the entire segment, this can explain the larger discrepancy between the event-level accuracy and the segment-level performance. In contrast, semi-CRF assigned the correct labels in these cases, likely due to its ability to exploit context through segment-level features, such as the chord root coverage feature f4 and its duration-weighted version f11. In the case of Figure 4, C# appears in the bass of the first beat of the measure and HMPerceptron incorrectly predicts a segment with label C#:dim for this beat. In contrast, semi-CRF correctly predicts the label A:maj7 for this segment. In Figure 5, semi-CRF correctly predicts a C:maj segment that lasts for the entirety of the measure, while HMPerceptron predicts an E:min segment for the first beat, as E appears doubled in the bass here.

Figure 4 

Semi-CRF correctly predicts A:maj7 (top) for the first beat of measure 55 from Mozart K025, while HMPerceptron predicts C#:dim (bottom).

Figure 5 

Semi-CRF correctly predicts C:maj (top) for all of measure 280 from Mozart K179, while HMPerceptron predicts E:min (bottom) for the first beat and C:maj for the other two beats (bottom).

6.3. KP Corpus Evaluation

To evaluate on the full KP Corpus dataset, we split the excerpts into 11 folds. In this configuration, 9 folds contain 4 excerpts each, while the remaining 2 folds contain 5 excerpts. We then created two versions of semi-CRF: the original system without augmented 6th chord features (semi-CRF1) and a system with augmented 6th features (semi-CRF2). We tested both versions on all 46 excerpts, as shown in Table 8. We could not perform the same evaluation on HMPerceptron because it was not designed to handle augmented 6th chords.

Table 8

Event (AccE) and Segment-level (PS, RS, FS) results (%) on the KP Corpus dataset.

KP Corpus 46 excerpts: Full chord evaluation

System AccE PS RS FS

semi-CRF1 72.0 59.0 49.2 53.5
semi-CRF2 73.4 59.6 50.1 54.3

The results in Table 8 demonstrate the utility of adding augmented 6th chord features to our system, as semi-CRF2 outperforms semi-CRF1 on all measures. We will use semi-CRF2 for the rest of the evaluations in this section, simply calling it semi-CRF.

We additionally perform root only evaluation on the full dataset for semi-CRF and Melisma. We ignore events that belong to the true augmented 6th chord segments when computing the root accuracies for both systems, as augmented 6th chords technically do not contain a root note. As shown in Table 9, Melisma is only marginally better than semi-CRF in terms of event-level root accuracy, however it has a segment-level F-measure that is 1.1% better.

Table 9

Event (AccE) and Segment-level (PS, RS, FS) results (%) on the KP Corpus dataset.

KP Corpus 46 excerpts: Root only evaluation

System AccE PS RS FS

semi-CRF 80.7 66.3 56.2 60.8
Melisma 80.9 60.6 63.3 61.9

To enable comparison with HMPerceptron, we also evaluate all systems on the 36 excerpts that do not contain augmented 6th chords. Because of the reduced number of excerpts available for training, we used leave-one-out evaluation for both semi-CRF and HMPerceptron. Table 10 shows that semi-CRF obtains a marginal improvement in chord event accuracy and a more substantial 7.6% improvement in segment-level F-measure in comparison with HMPerceptron. The comparative results in Table 11 show that Melisma outperforms both machine learning systems for root only evaluation. Nevertheless, the semi-CRF is still competitive with Melisma in terms of both event-level accuracy and segment-level F-measure.

Table 10

Event (AccE) and Segment-level (PS, RS, FS) results (%) on the KP Corpus dataset.

KP Corpus 36 excerpts: Full chord evaluation

System AccE PS RS FS

semi-CRF 73.0 55.6 50.7 53.0
HMPerceptron 72.9 48.2 43.6 45.4

Table 11

Event (AccE) and Segment-level (PS, RS, FS) results (%) on the KP Corpus dataset.

KP Corpus 36 excerpts: Root only evaluation

System AccE PS RS FS

semi-CRF 79.3 61.8 56.4 59.0
HMPerceptron 79.0 54.7 49.9 51.9
Melisma 81.9 60.7 63.7 62.2

We additionally compare semi-CRF against the HarmAn algorithm created by Pardo and Birmingham (2002), which achieves a 75.8% event-level accuracy on the KP Corpus. We made several modifications to the initial evaluation of semi-CRF on the full KP Corpus to enable this comparison. For instance, Pardo and Birmingham omit a Schumann piece from their evaluation, testing HarmAn on 45 excerpts instead of 46. We omitted this piece as well. They also look at the labels that appear in the dataset beforehand, ignoring any segments whose correct labels are chords that appear less than 2% of the time when rounded. We followed suit with this, ignoring segments labeled with augmented 6th chords and other less common labels. Overall, semi-CRF obtains an event-level accuracy of 75.3%, demonstrating that it is competitive with HarmAn. However, it is important to note that these results are still not fully comparable: sometimes HarmAn predicts multiple labels for a single segment, and when the correct label is among these, Pardo and Birmingham divide by the number of labels the system predicts and consider this fractional value to be correct. In contrast, semi-CRF always predicts one label per segment.

6.3.1. KP Corpus Error Analysis

Both machine learning systems struggled on the KP corpus, with Melisma performing better on both event-level accuracy and segment-level F-measure. This can be explained by the smaller dataset, and thus the smaller number of available training examples. The KP corpus was the smallest of the four datasets, especially in terms of the number of segments – less than a third compared to BaCh, and less than a tenth compared to TAVERN. Furthermore, the textbook excerpts are more diverse, as they are taken from 11 composers and are meant to illustrate a wide variety of music theory concepts, leading to mismatch between the training and test distributions and thus lower test performance.

6.4. Rock Evaluation

We split the 59 songs in the rock dataset into 10 folds: 9 folds with 6 songs and 1 fold with 5 songs. Similar to the full KP Corpus evaluation from Section 6.3, we create two versions of the semi-CRF model. The first is the original semi-CRF system (semi-CRF1) which does not contain suspended and power chord features. The second is a new version of semi-CRF (semi-CRF3) which has suspended and power chord features added to it. We do not include HMPerceptron in the evaluation of the full dataset, as it is not designed for suspended and power chords.

As shown in Table 12, semi-CRF3 obtains higher event and segment-level accuracies than semi-CRF1. Therefore, we use semi-CRF3 for the rest of the experiments, simply calling it semi-CRF.

Table 12

Event (AccE) and Segment-level (PS, RS, FS) results (%) on the Rock dataset.

Rock 59 songs: Full chord evaluation

System AccE PS RS FS

semi-CRF1 66.0 49.8 47.3 48.5
semi-CRF3 69.4 62.0 54.9 58.3

We perform root only evaluation on the full Rock dataset using semi-CRF and Melisma. In this case, it is not necessary to omit the true segments whose labels are suspended or power chords, as these types of chords contain a root. As shown in Table 13, semi-CRF outperforms Melisma on all measures: it obtains an 8.4% improvement in event-level root accuracy and a 31.5% improvement in segment-level F-measure over Melisma.

Table 13

Event (AccE) and Segment-level (PS, RS, FS) results (%) on the Rock dataset.

Rock 59 songs: Root only evaluation

System AccE PS RS FS

semi-CRF 85.8 70.9 63.2 66.8
Melisma 77.4 29.5 44.0 35.3

We also evaluate only on the 51 songs that do not contain suspended or power chords to compare semi-CRF against HMPerceptron. We do this by splitting the reduced number of songs into 10 folds: 9 folds with 5 test songs and 46 training songs, and 1 fold with 6 test songs and 45 training songs. The results shown in Table 14 demonstrate that semi-CRF performs better than HMPerceptron: it achieves an 8.8% improvement in event-level chord accuracy and a 21.3% improvement in F-measure over HMPerceptron. Additionally, we evaluate the root-level performance of all systems on the 51 songs. The results in Table 15 show that the semi-CRF achieves better root-level accuracy than both systems: it obtains a 5.4% improvement in event-level root accuracy over HMPerceptron and a 8.2% improvement over Melisma. In terms of segment-level accuracy, it demonstrates a 22.2% improvement in F-measure over HMPerceptron and a 28.8% improvement over Melisma. These results are statistically significant with a p-value of 0.01 using a one-tailed Welch’s t-test.

Table 14

Event (AccE) and Segment-level (PS, RS, FS) results (%) on the Rock dataset.

Rock 51 songs: Full chord evaluation

System AccE PS RS FS

semi-CRF 70.1 58.8 53.2 55.9
HMPerceptron 61.3 41.0 29.9 34.6

Table 15

Event (AccE) and Segment-level (PS, RS, FS) results (%) on the Rock dataset.

Rock 51 songs: Root only evaluation

System AccE PS RS FS

semi-CRF 86.1 68.6 61.9 65.1
HMPerceptron 80.7 51.3 36.9 42.9
Melisma 77.9 30.6 45.8 36.3

6.4.1. Rock Error Analysis

As mentioned in Section 5.4, we automatically detected and manually fixed a number of mistakes that we found in the original chord annotations. In some instances, although the root of the provided chord label was missing from the corresponding segment, the label was in fact correct. In these instances, it was often the case that the root appeared in the previous segment and thus was still perceptually salient to the listener, either because of its long duration or because it appeared in the last event of the previous segment. Sometimes, the same harmonic and melodic patterns were repeated throughout the piece, with the root appearing in the first few repetitions of these patterns, but disappearing later on. This was true for ‘Twist and Shout’ by the Beatles, in which the same I IV V7 progression of C major, F major, and G dominant 7 is repeated throughout the song, with the root C disappearing from C major segments by measure 11. Due to their inability to exploit larger scale patterns, neither system could predict the correct label for such segments.

We also found that three of the songs that we manually detected as having labels with incorrect modes (‘Great Balls of Fire,’ ‘Heartbreak Hotel,’ and ‘Shake, Rattle, and Roll’) were heavily influenced by blues. The three songs contain many major chord segments where the major third is purposefully swapped for a minor third to create a blues feel. We kept the labels as they were in these instances, but again both systems struggled to correctly predict the true label in these cases.

Figure 6 contains a brief excerpt from ‘Let It Be’ by the Beatles demonstrating the utility of a segmental approach over an event-based approach. Semi-CRF correctly predicts a segment spanning measure 15 with the label G:maj, while HMPerceptron predicts these same segment boundaries, but incorrectly produces the label G:maj:add6. Semi-CRF most likely predicts the correct label because of its ability to heuristically detect figuration: the E5 on the first beat of measure 15 is a suspension, while the E5 on the fourth beat is a neighboring tone. It would be difficult for an event-based approach to recognize these notes as nonharmonic tones, as detecting figuration requires segment information. For instance, to detect a neighbor, this requires determining if one of its anchor notes belongs to the candidate segment (see Appendix B for a full definition of neighbor and anchor tones).

Figure 6 

Measures 14–15 of ‘Let It Be’ by the Beatles, where HMPerceptron incorrectly predicts G:maj6 for measure 15 (bottom), while semi-CRF correctly predicts G:maj (top).

7. Related Work

Numerous approaches for computerized harmonic analysis have been proposed over the years, starting with the pioneering system of Winograd (1968), in which a systemic grammar was used to encode knowledge of harmony. Barthelemy and Bonardi (2001) and more recently Rizo et al. (2016) provide a good survey of previous work in harmonic analysis of symbolic music. Here, we focus on the three systems that inspired our work: Melisma (Temperley and Sleator, 1999), HarmAn (Pardo and Birmingham, 2002), and HMPerceptron (Radicioni and Esposito, 2010) (listed in chronological order). These systems, as well as our semi-CRF approach, incorporate knowledge of music theory through manually defined rules or features. For example, the “compatibility rule” used in Melisma is analogous to the chord coverage features used in the semi-CRF, the “positive evidence” score computed based on the six template classes in HarmAn, or the “Asserted-notes” features in HMPerceptron. Likewise, the segment purity features used in semi-CRF are analogous to the “negative evidence” scores from HarmAn, while the figuration heuristics used in semi-CRF can be seen as the counterpart of the “ornamental dissonance rule” used in Melisma. In these systems, each rule or feature is assigned an importance, or weight, in order to enable the calculation of an overall score for any candidate chord segmentation. Given a set of weights, optimization algorithms are used to determine the maximum scoring segmentation and labeling of the musical input. HMPerceptron uses the Viterbi algorithm (Rabiner, 1989) to find the optimal sequence of event labels, whereas semi-CRF uses a generalization of Viterbi (Sarawagi and Cohen, 2004) to find the joint most likely segmentation and labeling. The dynamic programming algorithm used in Melisma is actually an instantiation of the same general Viterbi algorithm – like HMPerceptron and semi-CRF it makes a first-order Markov assumption and computes a similar lattice structure that enables a linear time complexity in the length of the input. HarmAn, on the other hand, uses the Relaxation algorithm (Cormen et al., 2009), whose original quadratic complexity is reduced to linear through a greedy approximation.

While the four systems are similar in terms of the musical knowledge they incorporate and their optimization algorithms, there are two important aspects that differentiate them:

  1. Are the weights learned from the data, or pre-specified by an expert? HMPerceptron and semi-CRF train their parameters, whereas Melisma and HarmAn have parameters that are predefined manually.
  2. Is chord recognition done as a joint segmentation and labeling of the input, or as a labeling of event sequences? HarmAn and semi-CRF are in the segment-based labeling category, whereas Melisma and HMPerceptron are event-based.

Learning the weights from the data is more feasible, more scalable, and, given a sufficient amount of training examples, much more likely to lead to optimal performance. Furthermore, the segment-level classification has the advantage of enabling segment-level features that can be more informative than event-level analogues. The semi-CRF approach described in this paper is the first to take advantage of both learning the weights and performing a joint segmentation and labeling of the input.

8. Future Work

Manually engineering features for chord recognition is a cognitively demanding and time consuming process that requires music theoretical knowledge and that is not guaranteed to lead to optimal performance, especially when complex features are required. In future work we plan to investigate automatic feature extraction using recurrent neural networks (RNN). While RNNs can theoretically learn useful features from raw musical input, they are still event-level taggers, even when used in more sophisticated configurations, such as bi-directional deep LSTMs (Graves, 2012). We plan to use the Segmental RNNs of Kong et al. (2016), which combine the benefits of RNNs and semi-CRFs: bidirectional RNNs compute representations of candidate segments, whereas segment-label compatibility scores are integrated using a semi-Markov CRF. Learning the features entirely from scratch could require a larger number of training examples, which may not be feasible to obtain. An alternative is to combine RNN sequence models with explicit knowledge of music theory, as was done recently by Jaques et al. (2017) for the task of melody generation.

Music analysis tasks are mutually dependent on each other. Voice separation and chord recognition, for example, have interdependencies, such as figuration notes belonging to the same voice as their anchor notes. Temperley and Sleator (1999) note that harmonic analysis, in particular chord changes, can benefit meter modeling, whereas knowledge of meter is deemed crucial for chord recognition. This “serious chicken-and-egg problem” can be addressed by modeling the interdependent tasks together, for which probabilistic graphical models are a natural choice. Correspondingly, we plan to develop models that jointly solve multiple music analysis tasks, an approach that reflects more closely the way humans process music.

9. Conclusion

We presented a semi-Markov CRF model that approaches chord recognition as a joint segmentation and labeling task. Compared to event-level tagging approaches based on HMMs or linear CRFs, the segment-level approach has the advantage that it can accommodate features that consider all the notes in a candidate segment. This capability was shown to be especially useful for music with complex textures that diverge from the simpler note-for-note structures of the Bach chorales. The semi-CRF’s parameters are trained on music annotated with chord labels, a data-driven approach that is more feasible than manually tuning the parameters, especially when the number of rules or features is large. Empirical evaluations on three datasets of classical music and a newly created dataset of rock music show that the semi-CRF model performs substantially better than previous approaches when trained on a sufficient number of labeled examples and stays competitive when the training data is small. The code is made publicly available on the first author’s GitHub.8

Additional Files

The additional files for this article can be found as follows:

Appendix A.

Types of Chords in Tonal Music. DOI:

Appendix B.

Figuration Heuristics. DOI:

Appendix C.

Chord Recognition Features. DOI:


6Link to David Temperley’s Melisma Music Analyzer: 

727% = (83.2–77.0)/(100–77.0). 


We would like to thank Patrick Gray for his help with pre-processing the TAVERN corpus. We thank Daniele P. Radicioni and Roberto Esposito for their help and their willingness to share the original BaCh dataset and the HMPerceptron implementation. We would like to thank Bryan Pardo for sharing the KP Corpus and David Temperley for providing us with an updated version that fixed some of the labeling errors in the original KP corpus. We would also like to thank David Chelberg for providing valuable comments on a previous version of the manuscript. Finally, we would like to thank the anonymous reviewers and the editorial team for their insightful comments.

Kristen Masada’s work on this project was partly supported by an undergraduate research apprenticeship grant from the Honors Tutorial College at Ohio University.

Competing Interests

The authors have no competing interests to declare.


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