Prelude and Fugue in C minor, BWV 847 (image: Bibliothèque d'État de Berlin, ms. P 401, folio 4a, via Wikimedia)

Bach’s Well-Tempered Clavier, a collection of fugues and preludes, is regarded as one of the greatest works in the history of classical music. Caught up in its emotional power, the last thing on your mind might be the music's intricate compositional mechanics. But those complexities have long captivated composer-physicist Marco Buongiorno Nardelli and physicist Miguel Fuentes,* both SFI External Professors.

Almost three years ago, the pair formed an SFI working group to apply network theory to the study of music in hopes of learning more about its complex structures and patterns — and how these new insights could expand the possibilities for composition. The first in-person meeting of the group, Complexity and the Structure of Music II: Universal Structures and Evolutionary Perspective Across Cultures, is being held at SFI May 17-20.

The meeting aims to expand the boundaries of our understanding of music by pooling the expertise of researchers from even more disparate backgrounds than the first gathering, held via Zoom in December 2020, Fuentes says. “We are trying to take a step forward and bring in more people to open up the discussion,” he says. 

Participants this time around include archaeologist and SFI Fellow Stefani Crabtree, neuroscientist Elizabeth Margulis, and composer David Stout*, who performed along with Buongiorno Nardelli and other artists at a pre-meeting public concert held at SITE Santa Fe on May 16. 

“It’s going to be a very interactive, very creative, complexity-based event in which all these people that were invited, who are all very bright in their own field, will kind of play around with this idea of music complexity,” Buongiorno Nardelli says. 

While the working group initially discussed musical elements like harmony and structure that are common in Western music, it plans to explore musical structures and people’s experience of music in non-Western cultures as well, adds Fuentes, whose work with the group includes developing ways to quantify the degree of complexity in different elements of a piece of music, such as structure or tempo changes. “We will need to produce another set of tools just to analyze non-Western music,” he says.

The group’s work has already attracted an unusual amount of public attention — an unexpected side benefit that organizers hope will lead to a greater appreciation of the complexity embedded within the music that moves us. Some videos of the working group’s inaugural meeting, held via Zoom in December 2020, have tallied more than 1,500 views. “For such an academic topic, it’s somewhat astonishing,” Buongiorno Nardelli says.


*Marco Buongiorno Nardelli (University of North Texas); Miguel Fuentes (Argentine Society of Philosophical Analysis); Stefanie Crabtree (Utah State University); Elizabeth Margulis (University of Arkansas); and David Stout (University of North Texas)