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Shazam-Inspired App Launches to Identify Melodies by Shlomo Carlebach

A groundbreaking app offers a solution for identifying Jewish melodies.

On Shabbat, Shlomo Tannor often encounters a problem familiar to regular synagogue-goers: he hears a tune that sounds familiar but can't place it. Once Shabbat ends, there’s no easy way to look it up. Many of these tunes are the work of Rabbi Shlomo Carlebach, a prominent composer of Jewish religious music. To address this, Tannor, an artificial intelligence engineer and amateur musician from Riverdale, New York, created CarleBot — a melody detection software that identifies Jewish prayer melodies, similar to the music-identifying app Shazam.

CarleBot can determine if a tune is one of Carlebach’s many niggunim, or wordless melodies, and provide its name. Users can sing or hum up to 20 seconds of a song into their computer's microphone, and the app will identify it. Currently, CarleBot’s library contains about 200 songs.

“Sometimes there are just these tunes that circulate around and I’m not really sure where they’re from,” Tannor said. “I just thought it would be an interesting project to start with a well-defined library of songs, which is Carlebach music, and see if I could get something to work with that.”

Carlebach’s melodies, inspired by Hasidic music and the 1960s American folk revival, are widespread across Jewish sanctuaries, schools, and summer camps. However, following longstanding sexual assault allegations against Carlebach, some prayer leaders avoid his work, making the identification of these tunes crucial.

Ethnomusicologist Jessica Rode sees CarleBot as part of a broader effort to catalog and preserve traditional Jewish music. Similar projects include Gharamophone.com, which collects music from the North African Jewish community, and SephardicMusic.org. The National Library of Israel also archives piyyutim, or sacred songs, from various regions.

“There is the idea of something that is preserved,” said Rode. “And then, of course, there’s the work of musicologists to uncover it, to say, ‘No, this is actually not that old a song.’”

Rode also noted the ongoing debate about separating an artist from their work, especially relevant in Carlebach’s case.

CarleBot, named by Tannor’s wife Dena, was built over 10 hours spread across a few weeks. It is loosely based on Tannor’s previous bot, MishnahBot, which summarizes arguments and rulings from the compendium of Jewish oral law.

While Shazam identifies recorded songs, Jewish ritual music often involves humming or singing with a range of prayers, which can sound different depending on the singer. CarleBot is designed to be sensitive to the a cappella voice. Tannor converted YouTube videos of Carlebach songs into files that can be transposed onto different musical scales, accommodating imperfect pitch.

“I’m curious about learning about their history or what the given tune was originally composed to — like, which words it was supposed to go to originally,” Tannor said. He likens niggunim to nursery rhymes like “Twinkle, Twinkle, Little Star,” which share melodies with other songs.

Joey Weisenberg, founder and director of the Rising Song Institute at Hadar, appreciates the improvisational nature of niggunim and their spread by word-of-mouth. “All of us who do this kind of thing, one of the joys of not knowing a niggun, which happens all the time, is then asking friends if they know it,” Weisenberg said. He added that for Carlebach melodies, someone in the community usually knows the answer.

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