There are many parallels between science and music. Research papers are written as a result of experimentation, in much the same way as melodies and harmonies are discovered and notated in music composition. Yet both fields require innovation in order to progress.
Researchers from South Korea have used a mathematical framework to try and quantify this idea of innovation, using a sample of 900 compositions from Western classical music.
The results of this analysis, published in EPJ Data Science, indicate that Rachmaninoff, followed by Bach, Brahms and Mendelssohn, were the most novel composers of the Baroque (c.1700-1750), Classical (c.1750-1820), and Romantic periods (c.1820 -1910).
Piano works from 19 of the most renowned composers of the periods, including Mozart, Beethoven, and Chopin, were given both novelty and influence scores. These scores were based on how their pieces differed not only to other composer’s works but also their own.
In the paper, the authors described the meaning of the two categories: “Novelty measures how different a work is from the past, representing originality and unpredictability of generation. Influence measures how much a work has been referenced in the future, representing its success and impact as an inspiration for future creations.”
Both scores were generated using a computer model that divided each segment of music into “codewords”. Described as “symbolic progressions of chords”, the codewords are generated from each set of simultaneously played notes and take into account their octaves as well. Sequences of codewords were then compared with all the other compositions to determine how novel and influential each composer was.
Juyong Park, the corresponding author of the research, said: "Our model allows us to calculate the degree of shared melodies and harmonies between past and future works and to observe the evolution of western musical styles by demonstrating how prominent composers may have influenced each other. The period of music we studied is widely credited for having produced many musical styles that are still influential today."
Overall, the musical period with the highest novelty score was the Romantic era, which, according to the authors, “is in clear agreement with the widely-accepted thesis that credits Romantic composers with having broken many accepted musical conventions.”
However, the researchers warned that the novelty and influence scores did not always correlate.
"While novelty is necessary in a creative work it cannot account for all the creative and artistic qualities that go into creating melodies and harmonies that spread to later generations of composers. That may be why being more novel did not necessarily result in composers being more influential," said Park.
In fact, Beethoven, who is arguably the defining figure in the history of Western music, rated in the lower half of computed novelty. However, it comes as less of a surprise that his work was influential in the later areas of study, particularly in the Classical-to-Romantic Transition period (c.1800-1820).
As the team only used piano compositions by 19 composers, they cautioned that it is unknown whether another composer would have come out on top if all their works were considered. Nonetheless, the researchers hope that their scientific approach could be applied to narrative or visual artworks to enable “new understanding of human creativity and the dynamics of the progress of intellectual and cultural products.”