Rachmaninoff was the most innovative composer from the Baroque, Classical and Romantic eras of music (1700 to 1900) if you look at things from a purely mathematical perspective.
He tops the list based on a computer model created by South Korean researchers to calculate novelty and influence scores for 900 classical piano compositions written by 19 composers. Bach, Brahms and Mendelssohn also placed well.
Scores and ratings were based on how compositions differed from all prior pieces of piano music and from previous piano works by the same composer.
In general, composers from the Romantic era (1820 to 1910) tended to have high novelty scores, says the team from the Graduate School of Culture Technology at Korea Advanced Institute of Science and Technology (KAIST).
The study is described in a paper in the journal EPJ Data Science.
“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,” says corresponding author Juyong Park.
The researchers point out that they only considered piano compositions in their study, and that the rankings may look different if all the composers’ works were considered.
Nevertheless, the findings are a good basis for an argument among classical music buffs.
And the same approach could – Park and colleagues suggest – be applied to narrative or visual artworks.
The approach involved creating a computer model that divided compositions into segments called codewords. Each codeword consisted of all of the notes played together at a given time.
Sequences of codewords were then compared between compositions. The similarities between the sequences were used to create novelty scores for each composer and to determine the extent to which composers influenced each other.
The model distinguished each new musical period from the one before it by the rise of newly dominant and highly influential composers that indicated dramatic shifts in musical styles.
Rachmaninoff’s work during the Romantic era was novel when compared to the compositions of the other 18 composers included in the study, and his later works were novel compared to his earlier works.
Significantly – and not surprisingly – novelty does not necessarily correlate with influence, however.
Beethoven was ranked in the lower half of novelty scores, for example, yet was the most influential composer 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 authors write in their paper.
“While originality and success are both important characteristics of meaningful creative works, they do not correlate perfectly. That Handel was less novel than Bach and many others but had more influence on Classical and Romantic composers is a good example.
“Similarly, Beethoven, Schubert, and Liszt were less novel than Mendelssohn and Schumann, but eventually came to exert more influence and inspire more piano music to follow.”
Ultimately, of course, it depends on what you like.
Nick Carne is the editor of Cosmos Online and editorial manager for The Royal Institution of Australia.