A cluster analysis of harmony in the McGill Billboard dataset


  • Kris Shaffer Independent Scholar, Boulder, Colo. http://orcid.org/0000-0002-9074-7524
  • Esther Vasiete Independent Scholar, San Francisco, Calif.
  • Brandon Jacquez Independent Scholar, Boulder, Colo.
  • Aaron Davis Independent Scholar, Boulder, Colo.
  • Diego Escalante Independent Scholar, Denver, Colo.
  • Calvin Hicks Independent Scholar, Denver, Colo.
  • Joshua McCann Independent Scholar, Boulder, Colo.
  • Camille Noufi Independent Scholar, Boulder, Colo.
  • Paul Salminen Independent Scholar, Boulder, Colo.




McGill Billboard dataset, pop/rock, rock, cluster analysis, machine learning, harmonic syntax, transitional probability, visualization


We set out to perform a cluster analysis of harmonic structures (specifically, chord-to-chord transitions) in the McGill Billboard dataset, to determine whether there is evidence of multiple harmonic grammars and practices in the corpus, and if so, what the optimal division of songs, according to those harmonic grammars, is. We define optimal as providing meaningful, specific information about the harmonic practices of songs in the cluster, but being general enough to be used as a guide to songwriting and predictive listening. We test two hypotheses in our cluster analysis — first that 5–9 clusters would be optimal, based on the work of Walter Everett (2004), and second that 15 clusters would be optimal, based on a set of user-generated genre tags reported by Hendrik Schreiber (2015). We subjected the harmonic structures for each song in the corpus to a K-means cluster analysis. We conclude that the optimal clustering solution is likely to be within the 5–8 cluster range. We also propose that a map of cluster types emerging as the number of clusters increases from one to eight constitutes a greater aid to our understanding of how various harmonic practices, styles, and sub-styles comprise the McGill Billboard dataset.




How to Cite

Shaffer, K., Vasiete, E., Jacquez, B., Davis, A., Escalante, D., Hicks, C., … Salminen, P. (2020). A cluster analysis of harmony in the McGill Billboard dataset. Empirical Musicology Review, 14(3-4), 146–162. https://doi.org/10.18061/emr.v14i3-4.5576