Mozart and the power law

24th February 2012 | Concerts, Daily Life, Musings | 1 comment

I’m on my way to Perth in Scotland, for the third of my Mozart Series programmes with violinist Erich Hobarth. We’ll rehearse today, and the concert is on Saturday evening at 7.30pm in Perth Concert Hall. Please come along, Perthshire music-lovers!

Mozart popped up on the news pages this week in a surprising context. Daniel Levitin, author of ‘This is Your Brain – on Music’ has concluded a maths-led survey of many songs and pieces of classical music, analysing their rhythmical structure by measuring note-lengths and (if I understand this rightly) measuring how certain musical events recur over time and conform to a ‘power law’. The theory’s not all that well explained in the various news summaries I’ve read, and I’m not mathematically clued-up enough to figure it out without help. Anyway, one of the study’s conclusions is that Beethoven is one of the most predictable composers in terms of his rhythmic ‘behaviour’, while Mozart is one of the least predictable.

This is very interesting, not least because I imagine most people would guess it was the other way round. Yet to me the idea makes sense. Although Mozart’s music seems very even and regular, when you get to know it well you realise that there is infinite subtle variety in the way he structures phrases and longer units built up of several phrases developing from one another. What’s amazing is how this constant flexibility and innovation is presented within a smooth and reassuring flow of crotchets, quavers and semiquavers. How is it done? To my ears, no other composer, except maybe Bach, has mastered this art of ‘the unpredictable within the predictable’ so gracefully as Mozart. His own remark, that his music would appeal to connoisseurs but also please the ordinary music-lover ‘without knowing why’, comes to mind again.

1 Comment

  1. Nathan Shirley

    Interesting post. I’m a composer not a mathematician and so can’t completely follow the comments arguing for and against the legitimacy of the study you refer to (I know these things must be taken with a grain of salt). However the comments are certainly worth a read, very entertaining!

    What’s most interesting to me though is Mozart’s idea of making his music accessible yet with great depth. I didn’t know he talked about this, and it’s also a goal I’ve had for my own music.

    Though trends seem to be improving, all too often composers today seem preoccupied with complexity ONLY. This balance between the predictable and unpredictable is crucial to all art.


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