Thursday, March 28, 2024

Answer: When you're looking for a term or concept but can't quite say what it is?

One of the biggest SRS issues... 

P/C Midjourney

... is how to convert your vague thoughts, considerations, ruminations, and ideas into something that can be researched.   

You know what I mean--you're wondering about something, or you have an ill-formed curiosity about something and you'd like to find out more about it.  

We've talked about this many times before:  

A. That funny feeling of haziness you have when you first wake up?  (SRS Sep 12, 2022

B. How to find immensely talented people?  (SRS Sep 14, 2025

C. Finding words or phrases that you've only ever heard, but don't quite know?  (SRS Aug 9, 2012

D. What do you call that strangely-shaped building?  (SRS July 20, 2015

E. Questions about things you see while traveling? (SRS May 1, 2019)  

From all of these Challenges we learned that having a specific term that describes what you seek is usually an essential step.  

In particular, from each of these we learned the following rules-of-thumb: 

A.  Search sometimes takes a few iterations--don't give up after one search. When searching for a concept with really common terms, it sometimes helps to call an expert.  Changing your search from the generic to the specific is sometimes a great strategy.  When you're stuck, trying shifting to a more generic search (or, if you're already generic, trying shifting to more specific searches).  

B. Even vague ideas can be captured in a single word (or short phrase)--the problem is to find that term.  In this case, a 2-step strategy was the right one.  First, find the word (or phrase) by describing the concept--".. skilled in multiple arts / sciences / domains-of-expertise..." and then scanning for a short term that captures exactly that idea. In this Challenge, the term was "polymath."  

C. When searching for unfamiliar terms, sometimes you can figure them out just by fooling around a bit--explore!  Don't get too hung up getting everything just right, often the Google spellchecker will help out by suggesting alternatives.  Also, when searching for word meanings, it's often useful to include a "context term" to set the stage.  Including other terms that are "in the context" often leads to the perfect term or phrase.  

D.  Use context terms to help find articles / pages that are relevant to your search.  In this case, finding a photo of building let me read about what industry used that shape of building--once I knew that, the rest of the research was simple. 

E.  Remember reverse dictionaries.  They're incredibly handy for going from a vague concept ("buildings that are no longer churches") to a specific term ("deconsecrated").  

All in all, moving from vague understanding to some language we can actually use for search purposes is a bit of an exploration.  

The Challenges for this week are intentionally challenging--I wanted to stretch our collective imagination about what kinds of things we can search for--to go beyond the ordinary and try out new methods. Here were the Challenges:  

1. Can you find the terms / names for ardent fans of particular composers from the classical era? (I mean this expansively, anything from 1700 to 1920.)  "Debussyist" is one example, "Wagnerian" is another--can you find others?  In particular, what kind of search term(s) do you use to find such fan labels? 

I spent a few hours on this on a merry chase trying to figure out the best way to approach the problem.  I have about 10 pages of notes, documenting all of the twists and turns.  But rather than give you all the details (you can see my notes here if you're curious), let me give you the top-level summary.  

First, of course I tried the LLMs.  But for this part of the Challenge, I could not get any of them to give me a list of the "terms/names for ardent fans..." 

With ChatGPT and Gemini, I tried two different prompts: 

a. [Franz Schubert, Claude Debussy, and Ludwig van Beethoven all had followers who formed clubs or societies after them.  What is this behavior called?  That is, when a musical composer is has followers that create a movement in their name?] 

b. [what composers have movements named after them?]  

ChatGPT gave fairly boring answers "..they're called composer appreciation societies" and then 3 examples of composer movements (Beethovian, Mozartian, Bachian).  Fine, but it seems a bit thin, eh? 

Gemini gave me a bit better answer, teaching me about "Composer cults" (a term I hadn't heard before), and that "...depending on the specific activities of the groups, terms like "Schubert Circle" or "Debussy School" might be used to describe a group that not only admires the composer but also seeks to emulate or extend their musical style."  

That's an interesting twist, but not too helpful. 

(I went down dry pathways looking into Composer Cults, Circles, and Schools, but didn't get very far.)  

I then asked the LLMs [ Can you give a list of some composer societies named for individual composers? ]  This gives a better reply.  

Here is a list of some composer societies named for individual composers:

 The Bach Gesellschaft (English: Bach Society) is a German musicological society founded in 1850 in Leipzig for the purpose of publishing the complete works of Johann Sebastian Bach.

The International Frédéric Chopin Society was founded in Warsaw in 1932. The Society maintains a large collection of Chopin-related items, including manuscripts, letters, and first editions.

The Deutsche Mozart-Gesellschaft (English: German Mozart Society) was founded in 1880 in Salzburg, Austria. The Society promotes research on Mozart's life and works, and organizes concerts and festivals.

The Internationale Gustav Mahler Gesellschaft (English: International Gustav Mahler Society) was founded in 1957 in Vienna, Austria. The Society promotes research, performances, and appreciation of Mahler's work.

The Richard Wagner Society of North America was founded in 1892 in New York City. The Society promotes the study, performance, and appreciation of Wagner's operas and music dramas.

 These are just a few examples, and there are many other composer societies around the world dedicated to preserving and promoting the works of their favorite composers.

That's definitely the kind of thing I was looking for--but surely there are more.  

Sudden insight:  As I was reading through one of the LLM comments, I saw something about a group that was dedicated to preserving "the Mozartian style.."

I thought, "maybe, just maybe there's a way to attack this question if I think about adjectives..." 

So I posed this question to Gemini: [ what do you call it when a person's name becomes an adjective describing their style of work?  Is there a term for that? ]  (Highlighting mine.)

Gemini: Yes, when a person's name is turned into an adjective to describe their style or something reminiscent of their work, it's called an "eponym." More specifically, when referring to the stylistic characteristics reminiscent of an artist or author, you might hear it referred to as an "eponymous adjective." These adjectives often highlight the unique, identifiable qualities of the person's work and can be applied across various fields, including literature, music, art, and more.

For example, "Shakespearean" refers to something that is characteristic of Shakespeare's work, whether it be his writing style, themes, or dramatic structure. Similarly, "Kafkaesque" is used to describe situations or narratives that reflect the surreal, oppressive, or nightmarish qualities found in Franz Kafka's stories.

That's interesting.  Can I somehow leverage this insight?  Turn to regular Google: 

     [ list of eponymous adjectives ] 

which took me instantly to the Wikipedia list of eponymous adjectives!  (Who knew?)  

But that's a fairly long list (the page is 486 adjectives long)... 

How could I go through that long list and pull out the adjectives named for composers or musicians?  

This really is a call for ChatGPT.... 

Prompt: In this text file is a long list of adjectives named for people.  Can you select out the lines of people who are famous composers? 
A: The file contains a list of eponymous adjectives in English, along with the names associated with these adjectives. Given the nature of the file, I will now filter through the list to identify and extract lines related to famous composers. Since the content spans a wide range of individuals from various fields, I'll focus on those explicitly known for their contributions to music composition. Let's proceed to identify the composers. 
Here are the lines from the file that mention famous composers:
Bachian – Johann Sebastian Bach
Beethovenian – Ludwig van Beethoven
Brahmsian – Johannes Brahms
Chopinesque – Frédéric Chopin
Handelian – George Frideric Handel
Haydnesque – Joseph Haydn
Lisztian – Franz Liszt
Mahlerian – Gustav Mahler
Mendelssohnian – Felix Mendelssohn
Mozartean – Wolfgang Mozart
Rachmaninovian – Sergei Rachmaninoff
Schubertian – Franz Schubert
Wagnerian – Richard Wagner (as in Wagnerian rock)
These entries represent a selection of eponymous adjectives derived from the names of notable composers, highlighting their impact on various aspects of culture and art.
That is, this is a list (from English) of composers and musicians whose names have become integrated into the language.  I spot-checked this, but didn't go through all of the lines to verify it completely.  There are a lot of other artist-based eponymous adjectives (Hitchcockian, Felliniesque, Palinian, etc.)  

This isn't quite what I was looking for (for instance, "Debussyist" isn't in this list), but it's pretty close.  

Note that it really is oriented towards European composers, and reflects only English.  It would be fun to do this in other languages.  (Any volunteers?)  

Interesting side note:  when I ask it to do the same thing with the web page (URL given), it only returns 6 of the entries.  It's completely unclear why this is so. 

Pro tip: I found that it's much better to extract the text, save to a plain text file, and ask ChatGPT to do it from scratch—you get better answers. 

2. Can you find clubs that were formed to celebrate and fête musicians from that time period?  (I found some clubs that astonished me.  Perhaps you will too.)  

I thought I'd try the same trick--find a list of clubs or societies that are named for musicians... but I quickly ran into the ambiguous terms problem.  Just try searching for [ list of clubs ] or [ list of music societies ] and you'll quickly find out that there are a LOT of clubs and societies that have to do with music, but aren't quite as near the meaning that I want.  

I asked ChatGPT4: can you give me a list of organizations that are named for composers?  example: The Bach Society  ] 

I got a reasonable list of such societies: 

Here's a list of such organizations:

The Bach Society - Dedicated to Johann Sebastian Bach, focusing on performances and studies of his works.

Beethoven-Haus Bonn - A memorial site, museum, and cultural institution focused on the life and works of Ludwig van Beethoven.

Chopin Foundation of the United States - Aims to support young musicians in their studies and careers, and promote the appreciation of Frédéric Chopin’s music.

The Handel and Haydn Society - Based in Boston, this organization is one of the oldest continuously operating arts organizations in the U.S., focusing on performances of Baroque and Classical music, including works by George Frideric Handel and Joseph Haydn.

The Mendelssohn Foundation - Established to preserve the legacy of Felix Mendelssohn Bartholdy, including his music and the historical sites associated with his life.

The Liszt Society - Dedicated to promoting the music and legacy of Franz Liszt through concerts, publications, and research.

The Mahler Society - Focuses on the music and life of Gustav Mahler, promoting performances and scholarship.

Rachmaninoff Society - Aims to promote the understanding and appreciation of Sergei Rachmaninoff’s music.

The Schubert Institute - A research facility and society devoted to the study and dissemination of Franz Schubert’s works.

The Sibelius Society - Dedicated to promoting the life and music of Jean Sibelius.

The Vaughan Williams Society - Aims to advance the education of the public in the music of Ralph Vaughan Williams.

The Wagner Society - Several societies around the world focus on the promotion and understanding of Richard Wagner’s music and operatic works.

These are all fine, but I have the feeling there are more.  But how many more? 

When I ask this question of Gemini, I get three more societies in addition: 

The Giuseppe Verdi Society (founded in 1951 in Busseto, Italy) is dedicated to the study and performance of the music of Giuseppe Verdi.

The Johannes Brahms Society (founded in 19 Brahms-Gesellschaft) is dedicated to promoting the music of Johannes Brahms.

The Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky Research Center and Museum (founded in 1893 in Klin, Russia) is dedicated to the life and works of Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky.



Is this all?  How complete is this list?  Are there only 15 societies? 

Another Pro Tip:  Don't mistake a list for the complete list.  

The obvious thing to do at this point is to find a list of composers (easy: [ list of composers ] leads to the Wikipedia list of composers).  Then, I could ask ChatGPT to check for a society or association for each... right? 

I did a couple of manual tests to see what would happen.  (Yet Another Pro Tip: When doing searches like this, always test them out by running a few by hand.)  

When I did a test, I purposefully chose a few different composers to see what I'd find.  

     [ Domenico Zipoli society ] 

Sure enough, there's a Domenico Zipoli Society.  


     [ Nadia Boulanger society ] 

I figured there would be a society, and there is.  

But even something easy like: 

     [ Antonio Vivaldi society ] 

leads to a bunch of societies that are named for Vivaldi, but aren't necessarily dedicated to his music.  

There're even hits for the [ Hans Zimmer society ], which tells me something.   

Uh oh.  The more I dug into the data, the more I realized that a human would have to go through each of the search results and determine if this is a society or organization that was dedicated to their music, or if it was a society that was about the history and culture of that composers lifetime, or was merely an accidental name-collision.  (There are lots of people named Vivaldi, some of them aren't musical.)  

This is gonna be a problem.  And at this point, I stopped trying to find a complete list--I've got a decent-enough list, but looking for a complete list is probably a fool's errand.  If a library patron asked for this, I'd ask them "and what will you do with this list once you have it?"  But for me, for now, this is good enough.  

SearchResearch Lessons

There are several morals to this story: 

1. Going from inarticulate and vague to crisp and clearly defined is probably the hardest issue in SearchResearch: you need to go broad, search around, keep your eyes (and mind) open to new clues as they appear.  This process of wrestling with an idea until you're able to be clear about it is, to my mind, the most fun and engaging thing you can do while searching.  It's part psychoanalysis, part essay writing, part learning new things while trying to get to your goal.  

2. A great strategy is to go back and forth between Google search (to find things you know exist) and the LLMs which can then manipulate the data you've found.  We did this by learning about eponymous adjectives, getting the list, then semantically filtering it with ChatGPT.  

3. Before doing a massive search (as I proposed doing in the last example), be sure to manually run some of the searches to understand what it is you're asking.  In this case, the responses were truly all over the place, leading me to abandon this task as requiring way too many resources... and leading me to question why I was asking it in the first place, when all I wanted were the top 20 or so.  

Keep searching! 


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  2. is free association an important element in search?
    "the mental process by which one word or image may spontaneously suggest another without any apparent connection."
    also of interest:

  3. Thanks Dr. Russell!

    It's a fantastic work!

    I tried and failed. And now I am enjoying your Answer knowing that not even working my searches for many years I would have this kind of answer or post. I was totally lost!

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