By Ricky O’Bannon

In late April, researchers from the Korea Advanced Institute of Science and Technology and University of Texas-Dallas published a study that outlined the connections that are created between composers in the world of recorded classical music. 

Researchers looked at more than 63,000 classical CDs listed on ArkivMusic and the All Music Guide, and noted every time any two composers were featured on the same album in order to build a network. Some involved in the study previously worked for BarabasiLab in Boston that focuses on the fast-developing science of studying complex networks.

What mapping that network reveals is that there are easily defined sub-communities of composers that are often grouped together for artistic and historic reasons. However, perhaps the most surprising takeaway from the study is the sheer scale of the network with almost 14,000 composers represented and almost 10,000 of those being modern composers.

In that massive network of composers, clear patterns emerge based on individual decisions that an artist or ensemble makes about what music to include together on an album. Physicist Juyong Park who was the corresponding author on the study — along with Maximilian Schich, Arram Bae and Doheum Park — explained that modeling those decisions on a large scale can tell a story.

“The network shows how people connect,” said Park. “Beethoven might be a name that everybody knows, but he doesn’t exist on his own.”

Figure 1
Model of how network was created. Larger circles represent more CDs for a composer's music while the lines between circles represent when composers are co-featured on a CD. View full study here.

Classical music CDs are often more narrowly tailored than a classical concert. In 21st century terms, a classical CD unbundles the canon and often allows fans to focus on a particular area of music. If a classical fan is particularly interested in the Baroque era, they can find all-Baroque CDs more easily than a local all-Baroque concert. What this means in the data is that composers often have the strongest links between other composers of an era, composing style or nationality.

Park said those links can reveal a composer’s history, showing who their influences were and in turn who they influenced.

Figure 2
Model of composer communities that emerged
based on frequently being co-featured on CDs.
These communities often shared era, style
or nationality. View full study here.

Unsurprisingly, certain composers dominated the data. Researchers found that the top 1% of composers (139 out of 13,981) accounted for 57.1% of all the connections they measured in the data through 2009. But the data also showed what Park said is the “small world” property, where almost any of the nearly 14,000 composers could be connected with another in a “six degrees of Kevin Bacon” style with very few steps.

“You don’t have to be the Beethoven of your social world to be connected with nearly everybody within five steps,” Park said.

Co-author Maximilian Schich’s background is as an art historian, and he said one of the takeaways in the data he found was that these relationships can help answer the question of “what is classical music?” which can sometimes be tricky as modern composers blur stylistic boundaries.

“Classical music is not a country; it does not have a border,” he said. “If you are closer connected to Beethoven, Mozart or Bach, then you are probably [more] classical. If you are closer to Quincy Jones, you are probably [more stylistically] popular. There are many things in between, but these major attractors in the system are basically what defines classical music though the boundaries are actually fuzzy.”

One of the biggest surprises to both Schich and Park was the rate of new recordings. The study focused on the CD, which came of age in the 1980s and has fallen on hard times in recent years facing competition from the downloadable MP3 format and digital streaming. However, classical recordings usually sold as CDs are growing despite the decrease in popularity of the format and the fact that classical recordings have never been particularly lucrative ventures.

“It should be going down,” Schich said. “People buy fewer CDs, but in fact the number of different classical CDs that are on the market are growing exponentially.”

The surprising trend has been noted by several classical commentators in recent years, including The Washington Post’s Anne Midgette who compared staying current on the stream of new releases to trying to drink from a fire hose. Amy Lily of the Vermont alt weekly Seven Days wrote on the topic recently and found that part of the appeal for classical musicians might be that a recorded CD offers tangible proof of a musician’s best playing and might also act as calling cards or concert mementos for touring groups or soloists.

“The [production] is now completely democratized,” Schich said. “A small group can record a string quartet and sell it in a print-on-demand fashion.”

Schich said most of those new recordings focus on composers in that 1% club that make up the majority of the CD recordings. However, the number of outliers in the data showed that the democratization of the process has allowed for an extraordinary number of composers get their music recorded — even if it isn’t finding a large audience.

“What we found was there was something like 10,000 modern composers that were in the network, producing records,” Park said. “People who know classical music might know that modern music is very active, but for [a layman], that was pretty surprising.”