Key-Related Idioms in Mozart’s Music: A Peek into his Creative Process?

Paper to be presented at the annual meeting of the American Society for Music Theory in Minneapolis, October 27–30, 2011, in cooperation with Dr. Saharon Rosset of the Department of Statistics and Opertaions Research, Tel-Aviv University.

Is the choice of key just a marginal aspect of musical composition or could it also significantly interact with musical substance? The issue has long intrigued music theorists, musicians and casual listeners. Whereas the traditional discipline of “key characteristics” examines the connections between specific keys and modes of expression, newer research has started to consider associations between keys and tangible musical structures. However, a systematic, data-driven and rigorous investigation of the correlations between key and structure throughout a composer’s body of works has never yet been attempted.

In this paper, we demonstrate the crucial role of key choice in determining concrete structural features of musical substance as exemplified by the compositions of Wolfgang Amadé Mozart. By performing an extensive survey of harmonic, melodic and rhetoric phenomena in Mozart’s works, we show that associations between keys and musical matter are represented practically at all levels of his compositional thinking, amounting to a statistically significant total.

According to our findings, key-relatedness in Mozart’s music tends to intensify with time. Additionally, we show that by tracking the behavior of “key-related idioms”, one may gain a novel insight into some intriguing chronological, aesthetical and semantic aspects of Mozart’s creative process.

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