Non-linear changes in rhythmic variability of European art music: Quantitative support for historical musicology

Niels Chr. Hansen, Makiko Sadakata, Marcus Pearce

Research output: Contribution to conferencePaperResearchpeer-review


It is a long-held belief in historical musicology that the prosody of composers’ native languages is reflected in the rhythmic and melodic properties of their music. Applying the normalised Pairwise Variability Index (nPVI) to speech alongside musical scores, research has established quantitative similarities between durational variability in language and music. This work capitalises on the fact that syllable-timed languages like Italian and French have low nPVI while stress-timed languages like German and Austro-German have high nPVI. Extending this approach to analyses of historical developments, a recent paper ascribed linearly increasing nPVI in Austro-German music, but not Italian music, to waning Italian influence on Austro-German music after the Baroque Era. This “Italian Influence Hypothesis” is, however, a post-hoc hypothesis, and since we cannot perform controlled experiments on historical data, replication with more sensitive methods and new repertoire is required.
Turning to French music, we hypothesised an initial increase and a subsequent decrease, based on documented increasing German influence on French music after the Baroque and reported decreasing nPVI in French vocal music composed 1840-1900. In contrast to previous studies that only applied linear modelling, our prediction necessitated polynomial modelling to detect non-linear historical developments.
Mean nPVIs were computed for 34 French composers (midpoint years: 1700-1941). Moreover, previous data were available for 21 Austro-German (1672-1929) and 15 Italian composers (1613-1928). Predicting mean nPVI from midpoint years, a 2nd-order polynomial outperformed a linear function for French composers. Adding another parameter did not improve this fit significantly. Linear analyses replicated decreasing nPVI specifically for composers born after 1820, and, furthermore, found a preceding increase with identical effect size to that previously reported for Austro-German composers. Previous findings for Austro-German (linear increase) and Italian composers (no change) were similarly replicated.
Since French and Italian have similar linguistic nPVI, increasing French musical nPVI cannot represent decreasing influence from Italian music. Rather, this development can be explained in terms of a novel “Austro-German Influence Hypothesis”. This is consistent with musicological observations of Austrian/German influences on classical French music up until the mid-19th century, after which French music diverged into an Austro-German school and a French nationalist school. In sum, using musical nPVI analysis, we provide quantitative support for music-historical descriptions of an Italian-dominated Baroque (composer birth years: 1600-1750), a Classical Era (1750-1820) with Austro-German centres of gravity (e.g. Mannheim, Vienna), and a Romantic Era (1820-1900) with greater national independence.
Original languageEnglish
Publication date8 Aug 2014
Publication statusPublished - 8 Aug 2014
Event13th International Conference on Music Perception and Cognition (ICMPC) - Yonsei University, Seoul, Korea, Republic of
Duration: 4 Aug 20148 Aug 2014


Conference13th International Conference on Music Perception and Cognition (ICMPC)
LocationYonsei University
Country/TerritoryKorea, Republic of


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