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Pop Music Stinks And We Have The Proof

A scientific study puts popular music under the microscope.

By Rich_Maloof Aug 8, 2012 4:19PM

Photo: Charlie Abad/Getty ImagesWriting about music is like dancing about architecture, as a last-century saying goes. Nobody’s quite sure who made up that aphorism, though the leading candidates are all musicians — not surprising, really, as those artistic types generally don’t care for having their work quantified any more than they want to put on a suit and tie.

Studying music under the microscope of science seems even less likely to work; it’s more like knitting about biology, to extend the sentiment a bit. Science and music do make strange bedfellows but a recent study published in Scientific Reports finds the two disciplines together under the covers.

Measuring The Evolution of Contemporary Popular Music, a study by the Spanish National Research Council, analyzed sound data from over a million songs from the last 50 years and came to the conclusion that our beloved pop has failed to evolve in half a century. A sameness has pervaded the music, leaving the music of our time bland and homogenized.

Maybe the scientists are just bitter about not getting better seats for the last Katy Perry tour, but they were painstaking in their analysis. Their method predominantly involved plotting song data about pitch (how high and low the notes go), timbre (the tone and texture of instruments), and loudness in various musical styles including rock, pop, hip hop, metal and electronic.

The significant trends over the past five decades, according to the study, indicate that popular music is not progressing and may even be regressing. Pitch sequences have become more restricted, suggesting a lack of experimentation in melodies in harmonies, and the “homogenization of the timbral palette” suggests pop music is forever being played using similar sounds on similar instruments. The only significant upwards trend has been in volume: recording techniques have enabled producers to pump up the loudness of a track so that the bass makes your chest shake and the music slams into your ears even when you have the volume set low.

Quoting the study:

          Much of the gathered evidence points towards an important degree of conventionalism, in the sense of blockage or no-evolution, in the creation and production of contemporary western popular music.

Conventionalism — never has a musician heard a dirtier word. But popular music has remained much the same because people tend want the same things from it. Pop music in this way is a service, loathe though we may be to think of it that way.

What will be irksome about the study’s conclusions to songwriters, musicians and deeply entrenched fans is that to them music is not a service but an art form, and for new art to have intrinsic value it should be novel. It gets its power from being different from what’s come before. It should be evolutionary, a breakthrough. And the truth is that there are plenty of exceptions to the mainstream rules, just not enough to change the results of a huge data set. There is genuine innovation happening in the harmonies, melodies, and instrumentation of many musical acts who sell enough records to be deemed popular, if not “pop.”

To mangle another aphorism, there is a revolution and an evolution in music today, but it won’t be televised. Music that is progressive, compelling, and moving is out there but it’s been harder to dig up since the record industry was shattered by digital media, scattering talent in a million pieces all over the web. Fantastic and adventuresome new music is out there to be discovered. To believe otherwise is to be a grumpy old listener.

Photo: Charlie Abad/Getty Images

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