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Abstract Since its inception, Shannon's information theory has attracted interest for the study of language and music. Recently, a wide range of converging studies have shown how efficient communication pervades language, from phonetics to syntax. Efficient principles imply that more resources should be assigned to highly informative items. For instance, average information content was shown to be a better predictor of word length than frequency, revisiting one of the famous Zipf's law. However, in spite of the success of the efficient communication framework in the study of language and speech, very little work has investigated its relevance in the analysis of music. Here, we examine the organization of harmonic information in two large corpora of Western music, one made of MIDI files directly sequenced from scores, and the other made of MIDI recordings of live performances of highly skilled piano players. We show that there is a clear positive relationship between (contextual) information content of harmonic sequences and two essential musical properties, namely duration and loudness: the more unexpected an harmonic event is, the longer and the louder it is.
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