New study unlocks the secrets of Beethoven's magical musical patterns

EPFL researchers decoded his style using data science and found the nearly deaf composer's compositions to contain over 1000 different types of dominant and tonic chords


                            New study unlocks the secrets of Beethoven's magical musical patterns

What makes Beethoven sound like Beethoven? A research group has recently unlocked the secret to Beethoven's particular style. Researchers from The Ecole Polytechnique fédérale de Lausanne (EPFL), Switzerland, found that Beethoven's compositions are particularly dominated by the dominant and tonic chords. The study, published in "PLOS One" is based on the set of compositions known as the Beethoven String Quartets.

In music analysis, chords can be classified according to the role they play in the musical piece. Two well-known types of chords are called the dominant and the tonic, which have central roles for the build-up of tension and release and for establishing musical phrases. But there is a large number of types of chords, including many variants of the dominant and tonic chords, and the Beethoven String Quartets contain over 1000 different types of these chords, said researchers from EPFL.

The researchers completed their first analysis of Beethoven's writing style by applying statistical techniques to unlock recurring patterns. According to an EPFL release, the findings capture Beethoven's composition style with a "statistical signature". The study finds that very few chords govern most of the music, and the most frequent transition from one chord to the next happens from the dominant to the tonic, says the release.

"Dominant and tonic chords are the main contributors to the perception of tension and release in Classical music. Dominant chords tend to prepare tonics, which leads to the attribution of preparation and fulfillment of expectations. The significance of this paper is that it is the first study based on an expert-curated dataset of harmonic analyses of Beethoven's string quartets. The patterns found reveal that the central harmonies are indeed in accordance with predictions from music theory but go beyond that by describing the statistical signature of all chords, not just most central ones," Fabian C. Moss, first author of the study, told MEA WorldWide (MEAWW).

He added, "Our lab is dedicated to investigating the inner workings of music, which structures are prevalent — not only in Western classical music but also, for instance in Indian classical music and Jazz — and how this, in turn, affects listeners' perceptions and expectations.

The research team now plans to expand its work by extending the datasets to cover a broad range of composers as well as historical periods. (Getty Images)

The Beethoven String Quartets refer to 16 quartets that encompass 70 single movements that Beethoven composed throughout his lifetime. He completed his first String Quartet composition at the turn of the 19th century when he was almost 30 years old, and the last in 1826, shortly before his death, said the EPFL release. A string quartet is a musical ensemble of four musicians playing string instruments: two violins, the viola, and the cello.

For their study, the team went through the scores of all 16 of Beethoven's String Quartets in digital and annotated form. The most time-consuming part of the work was to generate the dataset based on ten thousands of annotations by music theoretical experts. When played, the String Quartets represent over eight hours of music.

"New state-of-the-art methods in statistics and data science make it possible for us to analyze music in ways that were out of reach for traditional musicology. The young field of digital musicology is currently advancing a whole new range of methods and perspectives," says Martin Rohrmeier, who leads EPFL's Digital and Cognitive Musicology Lab (DCML) in the College of Humanities' Digital Humanities Institute, in the release. The lab aims to understand how music works.

The research team now plans to expand its work by extending the datasets to cover a broad range of composers as well as historical periods.

If you have a news scoop or an interesting story for us, please reach out at (323) 421-7514