Music These Days

Yesterday the NME published the results of a new study by some Spanish scientists. This study concluded that “pop music has steadily become louder and blander over the last 50 years.”

 

To a lot of people this will come as no surprise. I put up a link to the NME article on my Twitter feed and got a few “my suspicions are confirmed” re-tweets. I agree. And I disagree. But before I get into my reasons, here’s the text of the NME story for your reference:

 

A Spanish research team analysed pop songs recorded between 1955 and 2010 by delving into an extensive archive called the Million Song Dataset. After applying algorithms to the music in the archive, they found that pop songs have become "intrinsically louder" and less varied in terms of chords and melodies.

Explaining his team's findings, Joan Serra of the Spanish National Research Council told Reuters: "We found evidence of a progressive homogenization of the musical discourse. In particular, we obtained numerical indicators that the diversity of transitions between note combinations – roughly speaking chords plus melodies – has consistently diminished in the last 50 years."

Serra's team also wrote in their study – published in the Scientific Reports journal - that pop music's "timbre palette" has become less extensive, meaning that songs are featuring fewer and fewer different sounds.

However, Serra's team found that pop music has advanced in one area over the last 50 years: so-called "intrinsic loudness". This term refers to the intensity at which a song is recorded, so a song played at the same volume as another can seem noisier if its "intrinsic loudness" value is greater. 

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Interesting. Let’s look at this.

First, the team analyzed “pop songs.” I take that as “popular songs”. Chart songs. Songs that the masses like. Black-Eyed Peas, Li’l Wayne, Carrie Underwood. American Idol. If you don’t LOVE music, you’re going to only hear about new music from the radio, TV, or from your friends (who probably also don’t LOVE music). 

Average people have many more entertainment choices to spend their time and money on these days. During rock music’s peak, let’s say from 1964 to 1980, people couldn’t buy movies, entire seasons of TV shows (much less single episodes), and video games (at least not the great engrossing ones we have today). Of course there was no internet to eat up our time. Your only buy-and-take-home-access-when-you-want entertainment options were books and music. Television viewing was restricted to the networks and a couple of independent channels, not the hundreds of channels streaming into homes today.

In addition to all of these alternate entertainment options, there’s 30+ more years of music vying for our attention. Some people undoubtedly stick to the music of their youth, the music they’re most familiar with simply because they don’t want to, or don’t have the time to, seek out good new music. They’ve got their group of songs & artists they love. They’re set. Time to take care of other parts of their lives.   

I remember driving up the Oregon Coast while on tour in 2000 and going through lots of wonderful little seaside towns, thinking “What a great spot for a record store! I wonder if I’ll find one?”, and seeing video rental stores instead. Now those video rental stores have all but disappeared. But I digress...

In that glorious period between 1964 and 1980 more people invested time and money into music. They listened to their records. When I was a kid my dad used to build a fire in the living room fireplace and we’d put on records. We didn’t have a VCR or even a color television. Music wasn’t merely in the background back then. People wanted quality stuff. Business-wise, record companies invested in finding quality artists and facilitated the making of quality records. 

In the present day, music has become cheapened and disposable to the average person. Not only is music everywhere and easy to get, but there are all those other entertainment options mentioned above. Most people don’t spend time with music and thus will simply take what is given them. It’s human nature. Similarly, most people will eat bland food at McDonalds, drink bland beverages, watch bland movies, etc. We’ll take what’s presented to us & go for the easiest option. Especially with music. 

The good news is that there are still many great music makers around and more coming up every day. People who love music will seek out great music. It’s there to be had. The downside for the music lover, and maybe this isn’t a downside at all, is that your average co-worker won’t have a clue about the artists you listen to, whereas in the 60’s and 70’s they knew who the Beatles and Elton John were. Our love of, say, DeVotchka, Neko Case, and even Wilco is our little secret.       

The study points out “The diversity of transitions between note combinations has consistently diminished over the last 50 years.” Melody. I don’t know about the last 50 years, but hip-hop has been mainstream for at least the last 25. Hip-hop has by far been the biggest influence on popular music during that time. And hip-hop isn’t really about melody. 

The study also says that pop music’s “timbre palette” has become less extensive. I think this, again, is because average listeners (or, more accurately, “music consumers”)  invest less time into music. They want what they know. They want bland. They aren’t looking for new sounds. 

As time has gone on, pop music making has become more about finding the formula that guarantees sales. I’ve attended many music making workshops over the last several years and I’ve repeatedly heard, “This is how you have to do it; these are the established techniques.” In one workshop the presenter actually said, “If you want a major record company to put out your song, you have to use AutoTune.” Have to. Or else your record won’t be touched by the corporations with major marketing muscle to get your song out to the average music consumer. And they’re right from a business standpoint. These huge corporations are not going to waste hundreds of thousands of dollars on something the average consumer will reject on the grounds that it “sounds weird.”

Interestingly, hip-hop and dance have been most innovative in giving us new sounds.  Examples include the Bomb Squad’s extensive use and manipulation of samples, the Wu Tang Clan’s innovations, and Cher’s use of AutoTune on “Believe.” (Hip-hop and dance are definitely not my areas of expertise, so I’m sure I’ve neglected some great examples.)

Finally, popular music was innovative back in the glory days because artists were encouraged to develop. Listeners craved new sounds and songs with depth rather than simply something familiar. Big record companies were willing to support artists and nurture their talents because many of those investments would pay huge dividends. Today mainstream artists are forced to go with the status quo and purposely make bland records because that’s what will sell. Big record companies want artists who won’t rock the boat. Lesser-known artists often struggle financially, have to work other jobs, and don’t have the time or energy to be innovative (thankfully, technology is helping on this front). Most artists need time and support to flourish and develop. Elliott Smith, for example, was a struggling songwriter hanging drywall to pay the bills. When he landed a publishing deal and could write full time, his songwriting grew by leaps and bounds. 

Despite what was reported in this study there is plenty of great music being made. True music fans know where to look for it. The rest of the people can accept the current state of mainstream music and gripe that “music was a lot better when I was young.” I would say that it’s their loss, but it’s really not a loss for them if they just don’t care. I don’t begrudge them for that. We all have lives.

Now go listen to some good music!