William M. Briggs

Statistician to the Stars!

Maybe your parents were right

They dropped the charges against that poor eighth-grade kid who was caught with a dollar bag of Skittles somewhere up in Connecticut. I’m not so sure that this is a good thing.

I used to eat Skittles by the pound, always saving the red and purple ones till last. My parents always warned me to drop the habit else my teeth would rot out. I didn’t listen and to the delight of my dentist and not surprisingly, they were right. I can’t eat Skittles as an entire meal anymore either. I outgrew them.

What else might your parents have been right about? They certainly warned you about your candy and if they were doing their duty, they educated you about your awful music, too. But they couldn’t have been right about that, could they? After all, your grandparents, and even their parents, said the same thing: modern music stinks. Because everybody is always saying it, you reason, it can’t be true.

Where did you get that idea?

Look at this picture. It shows a graph of music quality through time, sinking, slowly sinking, probably hitting bottom sometime in the next ten years or so. I’m at point number 4, which is the date I first heard myself echo my father when I shouted “Turn that crap down!”. My kids are at a point just off the graph, which I project is some time four to six years in the future, right before the apocalypse. My parents are at 3, the time when my blasting AC/DC on the Cougar’s eight-track machine pierced the old man’s eardrums. My grandparents came in at 2, despairing over their kid’s doo wop. Point 1 is too far back in the past for anybody to even remember.

By “music quality” I mean the obvious. You can also view this curve as something like the inverse probability that when you are in public you hear dreck pumped through speakers. This picture does not preclude that, at any time, top quality music can be found, because it obviously can be. However, the old rule that the lower the IQ the higher the volume is in force. If this graph is accurate, then I was right to switch off my kids music, and my parents were right to switch off mine. And so on. It turns out that what our ancestors were always telling us was true after all.

Music quality through time

It is nearly impossible to go anywhere today and not hear bad music. A steady stream of simplistic sound surrounds us. Every mall, restaurant, retail store, bookstore, elevator, bar, park, beach, bench, office, subway, car, bus, every damn place and every damn occasion. I fairly long to go out to eat or for a drink and enjoy nothing but silence and the murmur of conversation!

Just as you can’t eat Skittles and nothing else without rotting your teeth, you cannot listen solely to juvenile music without rotting your mind. You will positively stunt your growth injecting empty calories into your belly or empty notes into your brain.

Now, it’s good pointing out to me that Song A or Song B were excellent and that I’m a fool for not acknowledging this. Despite the fact that conversations about the niceties of juvenile music often bear an eerie similarity to, and have all the intellectual content of, in-depth discussions over the indiscernible differences between Diet Coke and Diet Pepsi, I won’t disagree with you that Song A is just the thing. Sometimes. Occasionally. But not everyday and not every time you have to shop for toilet paper.

Please just shut it off.

11 Comments

  1. By the end of WW2, sources of distortion in amplified sound were beginning to be pretty well understood. Actually, I should say the methods of reducing distortion were becoming understood, and applied. Probably the British magazine, Wireless World carried the most lucid articles on this for the layman. Then, along came transistors. Cute little buggers, made pocket radios possible, but with distortion levels of great magnitude. But the teenagers liked the sound, and it just continues to get worse. As an audio engineer in the 50s, I tried to get reproduction with total distortion below .01%. Now, music has 10 to 20% distortion added on purpose, and it hurts my ears, even when I turn my hearing aids off. So, it isn’t the”music” per se, just the terrible things which are done to it.

  2. Popular music of the past was as bad, in its own peculiar ways, as popular music today. When people compare, they’re comparing the best music of the past to the average music of today.

    I’m a fan of old-time radio and have listened to many hours of shows like “The Great Gildersleeve,” Fred Allen, Jack Benny, “Duffy’s Tavern,” and so on. Many of these shows featured a musical interlude with what I assume is a representative popular song of the era. And man do they suck.

    Replacing today’s bad music with the bad music of the 1930s and 40s would not do anything for me. And the supermarket where I buy my toilet paper has not so bad music, with classic Motown, rock from the 50s and 60s, and occasional newer tunes from the likes of Basia and Swing out Sister. Bad older music would definitely be worse.

  3. What makes a Strauss waltz better than Billy Ray Cyrus’ “Achey, Breakey Heart”?

    Taste.

    What makes my spaghetti better than that served at Spaghetti Factory?

    Taste.

    What makes a woman prefer sweats, rather than a dress?

    Taste. But if you reverse the questions, the answer remains the same. Taste.

    If we went back a thousand years, would a music preference curve be best described as a “hockey stick”? And if so, what would it prove…if anything? Does my love of Bach and Debussy simply serve as statistical outliers? Would, or better yet, should a preference curve be smooth?

  4. Briggs

    March 13, 2008 at 5:18 pm

    Bob,

    I like Duffey’s Tavern and Box 13. The former often had Bob Crosby’s band. Not wonderful, but it wasn’t awful. But I think that if you were to hear music in public somewhere in 1940 (or so), the chance that it would be better than any you’d hear today would be high.

    Mr Oregon,

    Let’s see. I’d agree with you about “taste” if you can say that the difference in appreciating a simple scale played on Schroeder’s piano and Beethoven’s Piano Concerto #1 is just a matter of taste, and that one piece was not intrinsically better than the other.

    Briggs

  5. So all old music is good music?

    What of modern lyrics that are funny or border on poetry? I think, on lyrics and expression alone, the past 30 years can best some of the wheezing ballads of point 1 on your grid.

    I don’t remember Bing Crosby singing about anything deeper then a Connecticut snow.

    I could be wrong and I don’t know if lyrics figure into your music debate.

  6. Briggs

    March 19, 2008 at 5:23 am

    WJB,

    No, old music is not necessarily good music, or even better music, than new music. But any old music, picked randomly, has a higher chance of being good than any new music.

    Yes, lyrics matter. I went to the site ohhla.com, which compiles lyrics on modern songs, and then clicked on one song randomly. Here is a snippet.

    Artist: Ese Daz (Spanish F.L.Y.) f/ Fingazz
    Album:  Pocos Pero Locos: Soundtrack
    Song:   Play On
    
    Rolled up, new Coup, brand new, all blue
    Chrome shoes, hey dudes, and I make fools bow
    Poppin' my collar, you better holler right now
    Pimp for life
    I want my dollars right now
    Smokin' that chaffey, I rolls with my heat
    Bitches see me rollin', tryin' to flag and stop me
    So they can tell the homegirls that they roll with papi
    A Mexican with braids, so that's why they jock me
    I changed up the game, now they're trying to copy
    Hatin' so much, that they're trying to pop me
    They do it too sloppy and they can't stop me
    From stompin' 'em like a bitch in the hotel lobby (Putos!)
    That's how we roll
    In my area, fool
    We bury ya, fool
    Just for tryin' to caring, you fool
    I'm tellin' you fools
    Don't try to fuck with us (Heh, ha)
    Don't try to fuck with us
    

    True, nothing about snow in Vermont there.

    Of course, I fully expect that you can search for a modern song that has better lyrics than any song sun by Bing, but that does not disprove my contention.

  7. Mr. Briggs: A big LOL. I must admit that I’ve never seen the quality of music so expertly quantified. I could not agree more.

    May I submit these lyrics from a #1 song in 1939, as performed by Mr. Kay Kyser:

    Down in the meadow in a little bitty pool
    Swam three little fishies and a mama fishie too
    “Swim” said the mama fishie, “Swim if you can”
    And they swam and they swam all over the dam
    Boop boop dit-tem dat-tem what-tem Chu!
    Boop boop dit-tem dat-tem what-tem Chu!
    Boop boop dit-tem dat-tem what-tem Chu!
    And they swam and they swam all over the dam

    “Stop” said the mama fishie, “or you will get lost”
    The three little fishies didn’t wanna be bossed
    The three little fishies went off on a spree
    And they swam and they swam right out to the sea
    Boop boop dit-tem dat-tem what-tem Chu!
    Boop boop dit-tem dat-tem what-tem Chu!
    Boop boop dit-tem dat-tem what-tem Chu!
    And they swam and they swam right out to the sea

    “Whee!” yelled the little fishies, “Here’s a lot of fun
    We’ll swim in the sea till the day is done”
    They swam and they swam, and it was a lark
    Till all of a sudden they saw a shark!
    Boop boop dit-tem dat-tem what-tem Chu!
    Boop boop dit-tem dat-tem what-tem Chu!
    Boop boop dit-tem dat-tem what-tem Chu!
    Till all of a sudden they saw a shark!

    “Help!” cried the little fishies, “Gee! look at all the whales!”
    And quick as they could, they turned on their tails
    And back to the pool in the meadow they swam
    And they swam and they swam back over the dam
    Boop boop dit-tem dat-tem what-tem Chu!
    Boop boop dit-tem dat-tem what-tem Chu!
    Boop boop dit-tem dat-tem what-tem Chu!
    And they swam and they swam back over the dam.

    They certainly don’t write ’em like that anymore! I also have it on good authority that the above-described escape occurred on a snowy day from a Vermont dam…

  8. re 7 and 8

    8 has something called grammar

    7 does not

    8 it not patently offensive

    7 is not

    8 has no recognizable English language, as determined by the Webster dictionary

    7 has both English language and a story

    since quality can be suggested to be a proxy for information content, and since there is no known information in 7, 8 must be higher qualtiy

  9. the kind reader may freely substitute 7 and 8 in the above post

    as needed

  10. Michael Jankowski

    March 30, 2008 at 7:20 pm

    I think claiming musical quality is declining over time is common as we age.

    For other anecdotal evidence of old songs with ridiculous lyrics, I’d like to submit two Stephen Foster classics that are state songs – for KY (“My Old Kentucky Home”) and FL (“[Way Down Upon The] Swannee River”).

    What’s most frustrating to me is that I occasionally find a musician or group that I think is worth something, and by album 3 or 4, they either break-up or start putting out trash – as if they didn’t wear protection from MQDD (“musical quality decline disease”) the last time they went to the recording studio.

    Most disheartening to me is the lack of originality in entertainment – be it “sampling” in music or resorting to making 70s TV shows into movies.

  11. Chuck Peterson

    March 31, 2008 at 1:25 pm

    The more albums a band comes out with, the better the chance they will have used up whatever unique ideas they have and start repeating themselves. Or maybe it’s just weath or laziness. Or old fans that don’t like the new direction. But then again, AC/DC has been playing the same basic song pattern for years and they’re still selling albums and putting on big shows.

    Is a simple scale intrinsically “better” than a complex pattern? Is a song with lyrics intrinsically “better” than one without? Does swearing or topic in a song make it intrinsically “worse” than one without it? Is a meal for $110 at a fancy hotel intrinsically “better” than a $20 one you make yourself at home?

    You might be in the mood for a piece of filet mignon at the house, and not a hamburger at The Four Seasons in Jakarta.

    Opinions and judgements about subjective subjects, like this one do not have an answer.

    If I’m in the mood to listen to somebody bang on a pan with a rock and scream, it’s better, to me, at that point in time, than Der Ring des Nibelungen Perhaps you’re not that fond of opera or listening to one for that length of time either, or you like to listen to your child hit a pan with a rock and scream.

    Now, you can have panels of judges coming to a conclusion on music based on some criteria or by judging popularity, as in American Idol for example. I can’t really stand the bands usually on there, but certainly I can appreciate judging them on how they would do in the popular music scene or that they have a good voice or whatever. Even if I don’t like their music. But that doesn’t make it bad or good in and of itself.

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