Not long ago, I had a geeky little fantasy/speculation in which I wondered if it might be possible to load all the charting pop songs from the 1930s to today into a computer and analyze them for harmonic sophistication. If computers can determine a pitch and read waveforms, maybe they could glean the chord changes of songs? And then maybe we could chart musical complexity and depth over time? In other words, could we prove quantifiably that pop music has grown lazier and thinner over the years, as one sometimes suspects?
So imagine my surprise last week when a flurry of news reports covered a study that purported to have done almost exactly that. “Study Shows Pop Music All Sounds The Same” said one headline. “Pop Music Getting Louder But Blander” said another. For String Theory Media, this is like unto catnip.
Scientists in Barcelona at the Artificial Intelligence Research Institute crunched an American database of nearly half a million popular songs from 1955 to now and developed a novel way of indexing their nuances and structure. It’s really hard to grasp how they did it even by reading the paper published in Scientific Reports. But their finding is blunt:
“We observe a number of trends in the evolution of contemporary popular music. These point towards less variety in pitch transitions, towards a consistent homogenization of the timbral palette, and towards louder and, in the end, potentially poorer volume dynamics.”
Slate’s coverage noted that the study really suffered from not analyzing evolution in rhythm. Scientific American notes that the database of songs is heavily skewed to the contemporary. But the prize for doing the best job explaining the research, I think goes to The Economist:
“In the 1950s many of the less common chords would chime close to one another in the melodic progression. More recently, they have tended to be separated by the more pedestrian chords, leading to a loss of some of the more unusual transitions. Timbre, lent by instrument types and recording techniques, similarly shows signs of narrowing, after peaking in the mid-60s, a phenomenon Dr Serrà attributes to experimentation with electric-guitar sounds by Jimi Hendrix and the like.”
This all feels validating for those of us who have, at times, lamented the apparent dumbing down of popular music. But after giving it some thought, I had more questions than answers. First, the loudness findings come as no surprise to anyone. The “loudness wars” in recording are well documented, so we have all the information we need to fight back against our indifference to dynamics. We merely seem to lack the will, or else our ears have just become numb.
As for harmony and timbre, there are real questions about whether computers can deduce them. A pretty on-the-ball sounding commenter on The Economist story says the study’s novel methodology is suspect and that attempts so far to get computers to interpret even melody reliably fall short, let alone identifying chord changes.
It also makes no sense that music has grown more bland in terms of timbre. Fidelity has gotten better, and the array of instruments and effects used by recording artists has exploded. Say what you will about Skrillex and his ilk, but even that one sub-genre of pop music is full of wild, ever changing timbres, and there’s been an explosion of genres in the past forty years, whereas the pallet of sounds in late 50s pop was relatively limited, even it the music was often awesome. I’m also suspect of the harmonic findings because just from knowing the history of the music, would we not expect a rise in complexity from the 50s, when pop songs were rooted in country and rockabilly, with three chords and the truth, into the 70s when Stevie Wonder, Earth Wind & Fire and Frank Zappa were ascendent? You’re going to tell me pop music was more harmonically rich BEFORE Quincy Jones? To hell with that. And why didn’t they attempt to factor in the pop music of the 1930s and 40s, when songs were written over true jazz chord voicings and constructed with watchmaker precision.
If you want to argue that the Gershwins wrote much better popular music than Diane Warren, I’m on board. And I do believe that the mainstream American public is, in general, less sophisticated about or attuned to the movement and thrill of serious composing and music-making than it was in the 60s, when Time magazine put Thelonious Monk on its cover and TV put Leonard Bernstein on prime time. But anybody claiming to have scientific proof of a steady plunge in “quality” of “pop music” from the 50s to today sounds like they’re trying to make their model fit their prejudices.
(Meanwhile, THIS seems to be a pending patent application by Sony for a process to actually deduce chord changes in a piece of recorded music. They seem like they have a ways to go on this one.)