Why Hania Rani and Giovanni Allevi are so successful
The two pianists developed a musical language that set them apart from other contemporary composers.
A few weeks ago, I went to a concert by Hania Rani in Brussels. Right after her show, I found myself in the uncomfortable position of witnessing a standing ovation without really understanding what was going on. I do not understand her success and her music. That’s why I decided to figure out her secret sauce. If you were asking, I didn’t indulge much in musical critique: I studied Hania Rani (and her Italian functional equivalent Giovanni Allevi) the DaNumbers way, reading data. This time, data come from one of my favorite APIs, Spotify.
Thanks for your attention
BRUSSELS, Belgium – The last ten years saw an explosion of piano composers who enjoyed massive commercial success, adhering to the minimalist movement. Other composers (Luciano Berio among them) never managed to sell such a high number of records because, often, classical music from XX Century is too complicated for laypeople. Overcomplicated music led to the demand for new, more enjoyable, and instrumental music. Is that enough to explain the success of composers like Hania Rani or Giovanni Allevi? Maybe not.
DaNumbers investigated Giovanni Allevi and Hania Rani collecting data about them plus ten other composers representing different contemporary music genres. The sample comprises movie scores writers, contemporary composers, and essential minimalist music authors.
The results of this analysis show that this new wave of commercially successful composers does things differently from their predecessors, adapting to new forms of fruition and novel societal needs. The following paragraphs will help elaborate on that note.
Who is part of the sample and why
DaNumbers could not work with the score by composers. So, besides Hania Rani and Giovanni Allevi, it decided to use information from Spotify’s API. These are the composers we choose (in sparse order):
- Luciano Berio: contemporary Italian composer. He is famous for the finale of Puccini’s Turandot, his sequences for solo instruments, his symphony, and for being at the forefront of musical experimentation in the XX Century.
- Philipp Glass: American composer. He is one of the biggest names of contemporary and minimalist music.
- Arvo Pärt: Minimalist composer from Estonia. His specialization is sacred music
- Franco Battiato: Italian singer-songwriter, during his youth, he built an international reputation for being one of the most experimental musicians of his generation
- Ennio Morricone: Italian film composers, he won two Oscars, three Golden Globes, four Grammys, and seven BAFTAs
- Ludovico Einaudi: Italian minimalist pianist and composer. He became an international sensation during the last 30 years, writing and recording some of the most recognizable tunes of the genre.
- Michael Nyman: British composers. He wrote numerous scores for movies and some of the most recognizable orchestral works in minimalism.
- Max Richter: German composer. In 2015, Deutsche Grammophon released his edition of Vivaldi’s Four Seasons.
- Vangelis: Greek composer, he composed the soundtrack of cult movies such as Blade Runner, Chariot of Fire, Antarctica. He is famous for his symphonic electronic music and his reclusive private life.
- Mark Andre: French composer living in Germany, but relatively unknown beyond contemporary music’s cognoscenti.
The selection wanted to have a strong benchmark in minimalist music and tried to compare musicians from elsewhere like Italian pop (Franco Battiato), movies (Morricone, Vangelis), and more academic contemporary music. DaNumbers shows how these composers stand.
A question of melancholia
Spotify offers a wealth of data. Some of the parameters it provides are valence (happiness), danceability, energy, acousticness, and liveness. All these parameters are somehow associated with one another. That’s why, using a factorial analysis, DaNumbers tried to reduce that four variables into two factors. The first factor is ‘Cheerfulness.’ Cheerfulness pulls together valence and danceability. The second factor is ‘Strenght.’ Strength pulls together energy, acousticness, and liveness. The quirk point is that the loading of acousticness is negative. The consequences of it will be clear in the following chart.
In the chart, we see how the two variables coming from factor analysis describe the chosen musicians. The red dashed lines divide the charts into four quadrants. The bottom left is the focus of this paragraph: down there is where melancholy sits. In these corners, Cheerfulness and Strenght are at the minimum. That is why this is the sweet spot for melancholic music.
The results of this analysis might suffer from a bias. Ennio Morricone, Michael Nyman, Philip Glass, and others had a career that lasted for decades. These composers had more chances to explore and adapt their music to other needs. Hania Rani is still young and did not write as much music as her colleagues. Mark Andre represents something else: his music is not meant to be recorded. The fruition of his music is different: to fully enjoy it, it needs to be executed in front of an audience. Contemporary music focuses on building atmosphere rather than offering tunes. That is why Andre and Berio are some outliers in this sample.
Hania Rani shares this idea of music to some extent. During her live exhibitions, she plays her piano, but this is hardly the end: scenography and lights also play a role in building a well-defined atmosphere. It is not surprising, thus, that Rani and Andre are so similar, in a way. Moreover, in quantitative terms, Hania Rani has the disadvantage that her music is recorded by herself essentially. Others -- Philip Glass, Arvo Pärt, Morricone -- were recorded by other musicians. The following chart explains it well.
Ennio Morricone has more than nine thousand records on Spotify, Hania Rani only 71. On the other hand, Franco Battiato, one of the cult musicians of the Italian pop scene, has 700. This means that a comparative analysis of Hania Rani relative to other composers needs to make a few more steps.
Melancholia and other keys
The previous paragraph pointed out how Hania Rani’s music is essentially melancholic. Is there any further proof of that? The following charts say yes.
Here DaNumbers reused the factorial analysis data and tried to see if the two factors as a predictor of the key. Each point represents a record, and the shades represent the values of Cheerfulness and Strength for every track. For further clarity, songs were divided between Cheerfulness and Strength, letting the colors prove our point.
If Cheerfulness and Strength were good predictors for major keys, the bottom squares on the right would have been orange. This does not happen. After running a logistical regression with Strength and Cheerfulness as predictors, only the first looks like having something to do with keys. The catch is that the relationship appears to be too significant (the p-value, the probability of being wrong is a 0 with 12 other zeroes after the point). Logistical regressions are statistical tools that explain why a tossed coin falls on the head or the cross.
The key (major or minor) is unpredictable for all of the 12 composers. Only Franco Battiato represents a partial exemption. On the other hand, the case of Hania Rani is peculiar: most of her tracks sit within in a very narrow band in terms of cheerfulness and strength. This might not be casual.
Although it is clear that strength and cheerfulness (as described here) do not explain the keys, it is clear that the previous chart shows how different composers are from one another and how their style is more important. Thus, factorial analysis – as used here with Spotify’s track information – does not look like a proper tool to describe the individual style of any composer, let alone explain Hania Rani’s success.
The better tools are less fancy methods, more concerned about recurring patterns and styles. One of them is to count the prevalent keys composers are using. DaNumbers will do it in the following chart.
Here we see the most used key for every composer considered. Hania Rani uses G minor, Giovanni Allevi uses E major, Max Richter D minor. Generally speaking, all the composers use keys with few alterations (D minor has only a B flat, G minor only B, and E flat). Arvo Pärt even uses A minor, with no alterations, like Ludovico Einaudi. Filipp Glass confirms this trend using F major, the relative major scale to D minor, having only a B flat. Prevalent keys in Andre and Berio (who didn’t compose tonal music) emphasize Vangelis and Allevi even more. Vangelis’ C sharp major means that he uses a key that, relative to C major, is half a tone high enough to build an uncanny atmosphere.
The key used by Giovanni Allevi, E major, is one of the most brilliant keys ever. It is just one major third above C major. It is the key of Vivaldi’s Spring, so to give an idea of the atmosphere. On the other hand, the most peculiar choice comes from Hania Rani.
Her most frequent key is G minor. G minor is the key of Mozart’s 40th Symphony, Vivaldi’s summer, or the fugue in Pergolesi’s Stabat Mater. G minor is one of the most widespread minor keys, and it has a unique sound that is perhaps one of the best to describe melancholy at large.
There is further evidence that keying is part of each artists’ personal style, as the following chart shows.
Here we see how Hania Rani's melancholy is part of her music. In parallel, Giovanni Allevi pursues a more cheerful road. In general, minimalist musicians have a fair share of major and minor keys. The same goes for more known musicians. For more traditional composers, keys are not a stylistic element: they use keys according to the needs of the moment. On the other hand, contemporary pianists like Hania Rani or Giovanni Allevi use keys as a central style element.
Rani and Allevi either overwhelmingly use minor or major keys. Hania Rani’s minor keys cover 66 percent of her compositions. In Allevi’s case, the share of major compositions is an astonishing 82 percent. This data points to precise directions: Hania Rani or Giovanni Allevi might not precisely fit into the realm of minimalism. These two composers have so many unique peculiarities that it is perhaps better to accept that they are one of a kind. Other data confirm this hypothesis.
Songs rather than tunes
From the stage, Hania Rani refers to her compositions as songs. What does it mean? Data about how duration changes among composers will shed some light on this aspect.
The above charts reproduce the timespan above and below the average where most of the songs of the considered composers sit. The smallest of these spaces is Hania Rani. Her music is fairly standard in duration, with a standard deviation of plus or minus 96 seconds. Marc Andre’s is of 522 seconds.
According to the chart, composers with some background in pop music will tend to produce more standardized music: Ennio Morricone wrote numerous pop songs, the same goes for Giovanni Allevi. Franco Battiato, on the other hand, is one of Italy's pop icons. At the bottom of the funnel, Hania Rani's position shows that maybe she decided to incorporate some features of pop music, using relatively short tracks with a predictable length. The following chart will be more precise.
Here we see the duration of each Spotify track divided by each composer. Classical composers like Andre, Philip Glass, Luciano Berio, or Arvo Pärt can have songs long thousands of seconds. Unfortunately, DaNumbers did not investigate if some of the published records put together movements of the same composition. Yet, data presented so far suggest that new generation composers that tend to write short, self-conclusive pieces borrowing features from the realm of pop.
Spotify does not release the most important data: the demographics of the listeners. Yet DaNumbers found some indications about the reasons for the success of Hania Rani and Giovanni Allevi. Although their music might be not as complex as Luciano Berio’s, the two of them found a way towards their listeners which is based upon simplicity and recognisability.
Those who listen to them do not expect anything revolutionary: they want composers to deliver something they can relate to, which is something written in a more popular language, without the pomp and circumstance of more traditional classical music.
Their space, between pop and classical, might confuse the most educated listeners. Yet, their simplicity hits some strings in their listeners who, every time they issue a new album, have an idea of what they can expect from them, and they already know that they will like it.
This analysis didn’t study the appearance, the spoken language of the artists. Moreover, it didn’t run a survey trying to understand what people think of them. In addition, without access to the digital versions of their score, DaNumbers couldn’t perform a precise musicological analysis of their music.
Despite these limitations, data suggest that instead of being snobbish and dismissing these artists, some musical critics should start taking them seriously. Perhaps, Hania Rani and Giovanni Allevi won’t represent the reboot of classical music, but, more likely, they found a way to get to the general audience. As data have shown, these musicians make music easy to listen to, with a precise style people recognize on the spot, using a limited repertoire in terms of keys and adhering to single, auto conclusive short tracks, which are perfect for a live concert or a Spotify playlist. In contrast, classical composers perhaps still have 45 rpm records or CDs in mind.
Is this quantum leap key? Maybe. Is this an achievement for Western music? Only history will tell.
Most of this newsletter was experimental. Feel free to send me any feedback on the methods I used and on the charts. I am particularly interested in your feedback on the third one.
EDIT: The first chart was corrected because of a typo on the x-axis.