The 111 Most Influential Composers

It has been explained how inclusion in the present list of 500 composers was decided on the basis of ranked scores obtained from integrating a series of variables. One of the implications of these scores is that they make it possible to secondarily derive an ordered list of the most influential composers.

Once the scores were ranked, the ranks were used as the basis for weights that were substituted for the names of each composer appearing in all the 'Has Influenced' fields in the main "Composers" file; the resulting lists of numbers were then totalled up for each subject composer. The composer weights were created by: (1) adding 2.0 to the rank number for each composer, then (2) dividing this value into 1000., then (3) taking the cube root of the resulting value. So, for J. S. Bach, the highest ranked composer, the cube root of (1000. / (1. + 2.)), or 6.934, was arrived at. For the composer at rank 500., the parallel value was 1.258. There is nothing magic about this particular formulation; I simply wanted a sliding scale that would give greater weight to someone’s influencing Bach than to an influence on any old composer.

This ended up meaning that an influence on Bach was weighted about twice as high as one on Vivaldi or Rossini, either of whom’s name in turn received a weight about twice as high as those connected to Gottschalk or Roussel. In other words, a composer who is said to have influenced only the two composers Vivaldi and Puccini would end up ranked much higher on this 'Most Influential Composers' listing than would a composer who is said to have influenced only Gottschalk and Roussel.

It must of course be admitted that these scores and rankings are no better than our perceptions and knowledge of who really did have an influence on whom. Still, it appears to me that there is enough agreement among experts in this respect that the results produced here probably do reflect at least a first-order level of accuracy. Whether Debussy "really" ranks fourth in this respect, or first, or fifth, or even tenth is not that important; clearly the evidence suggests that he has been at least a whole order of magnitude more influential than, say, Rossini or Corelli (who in turn have been at least a whole order of magnitude more influential than Balakirev or Michael Haydn).

Another item. Looking at List A to follow one may wonder why some rather conservative composers such as J. S. Bach, Felix Mendelssohn, or Maurice Ravel rank so relatively high on it, whereas some admitted innovators such as John Cage or Karlheinz Stockhausen rank much lower. The answer lies in the fact that the approach taken here emphasizes influence as defined strictly in terms of those composers whose music we as an overall population are actually listening to these days. Ravel, for example, is not usually credited with breaking much truly new ground--yet, for whatever reason, a good number of important twentieth century composers are thought to have been influenced by his music. In other words, the list and rankings here are based on a real and present-day outcome pattern rather than some attempted independent (and absolute) measure of innovation or creativity.

And it might also be noted that the "influence" rankings presented below should be viewed as only one aspect of overall importance or current relevancy. In the overall rankings for the latter, J. S. Bach came out first, Mozart second, Beethoven third, Schubert fourth, and Brahms fifth. This coincides very closely with what past observers have concluded, whatever their methods of assessment have been. Just because someone might have been very influential--like Schoenberg, for example--doesn't necessarily mean that their music is currently played or enjoyed as much as some other less influential figure's is!

Following are three lists, each containing essentially the same information, but sorted in three ways. In List A, the main sort is on the basis of the total weights. The rank in Version 2 is given on the left margin. The weights total is then given, followed by the number of times (n) overall the composer was listed as an influence (in the case of J. S. Bach, by 121 composers of the 500). The means and standard deviations for each list of weights follow, and the table is rounded out by the composer’s overall rank in the main list of 500.

In List B, the same data are sorted according to the total number (n) of composers influenced. In this list Stravinsky comes out first. The weights totals, means, standard deviations, and overall ranks are also given.

In List C, the same data are sorted according to the means. This creates an unusual look at the subject of “influence” in which the top-ranking composers of the 111 appearing in List A are figures who did not necessarily influence many other composers, but who mostly influenced important figures.

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