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REPORT | Science Names Rachmaninoff The Most Innovative Composer — And Beethoven The Most Influential

By Anya Wassenberg on January 30, 2020

Rachmaninoff at the piano in 1910 (Public domain image)
Rachmaninoff at the piano in 1910 (Public domain image)

Rachmanininoff has been officially named as the most innovative of all the classical composers — so says a computer algorithm designed by researchers in South Korea.

Scientists at the Graduate School of Culture Technology at KAIST (Korea Advanced Institute of Science and Technology) analyzed the work of the 19 composers that they considered to be the best known of the large field. They were taken from the Baroque, Classical and Romantic eras, or roughly 1700 to 1900. The study was published in the open access journal EPJ Data Science.

Their computer model broke the musical compositions down into what they called “codewords” — essentially all the notes played together at any given time. The algorithm analyzed sequences of those codewords in a specific composer’s works, comparing them against the same artist’s previous works, as well as other works of the same period. The authors of the study analyzed over 900 compositions for piano for both innovation and influence.

Study author Juyong Park is quoted in a media release. “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.”

Rachmaninoff, seated (Public domain image)
Rachmaninoff, seated (Public domain image)

Overall, the study found that the Romantic composers scored the highest when it came to innovation, an area where Classical musicians scored the lowest. Sergei Rachmaninoff, perhaps the most famous of the late Romantic composers, scored the highest on the side of innovation, followed by J.S. Bach, Johannes Brahms and Felix Mendelssohn.

Ludwig van Beethoven was to be found in the lower half of the rankings which rate innovation, but scored the highest when it came to influence during the Romantic period.

“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,” the study authors wrote.

The computer generated assessment is certain to ignite discussion in the classical music world, where Rachmaninoff, with his nostalgic Russian themes and use of conventional major and minor keys, is generally seen as popular but not noted as the most innovative. It’s true that Rachmaninoff essentially established the modern system of the conductor standing and conducting in an orchestra pit, but it’s contemporaries like Stravinsky and Schoenberg who tend to steal the limelight when the discussion turns to compositional innovation.

The Korean researchers suggest their method could also be used to analyze colours and shapes in visual arts, or word patterns in pieces of writing.


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