New proof (which wasn’t really need) that popular music is, as has long been claimed, been growing worse has arrived thanks to the diligent work of Joan Serrà and his colleagues in the Nature: Scientific Reports paper, “Measuring the Evolution of Contemporary Western Popular Music.” From the abstract:
[W]e prove important changes or trends related to the restriction of pitch transitions, the homogenization of the timbral palette, and the growing loudness levels.
The central results could not have been summarized better than in the Australian, which correctly wrote:
OLD fogeys have long proclaimed it, parents have long suspected it, and ageing rockers have long feared that even thinking it would turn them into all they used to despise.
But it seems that believing today’s music is samey, boring and, well, just too loud does not necessarily make you a miserable reactionary. Rather, it is the scientific truth.
Before continuing, let’s snap our minds back to May of 2010, when Yours Truly posited a theory of Musical Badness.
Musical Badness (MB) quantified is this: the proportion of the time a length of music is devoted to repetitiveness.
For the Billboard number one song of each year, we computed the number of unique words per song from which we formed the ratio of unique words to total number of words. The idea is that—on average—a song that is more repetitive is worse than a song which is more expansive in its use of lyric—or melody, harmony, or rhythm. As we then said,
Of the three songs with the lowest proportion of unique words, two are by the Beatles. 1964’s I Want Hold Your Hand (21%), and 1968’s Hey Jude (18%), which featured the lyric “na na na, na na na” sang 40 times. Simple to digest, no? The other worst offender was a song called Too Close by Next in 1998 (18%), which featured the subtle refrain:
Baby when we’re grinding
I get so excited
Ooh, how I like it
I try but I can’t fight it
Oh, you’re dancing real clos
Cuz it’s real, real slow
You’re making it hard for me
(Incidentally, see also proof that it is global warming which causes musical badness.)
Return to the present, where I am delighted to report that the new work from Spain confirms one aspect of the Musical Badness measure, the growing simplicity, i.e. repetitiveness, of popular music. The Australian quotes study co-author Martin Haro, who said “The complexity of the pitch transition – chords and melodies – is simplified over the years…Right now, music is full of these simple transitions. In the Fifties, new chords were tried and we were more experimental…[music today] is less an artistic expression and more a commercial product. Old music was more expressive, more experimental.”
For their work, they used a dataset which included “the year annotations and audio descriptions of 464,411 distinct music recordings (from 1955 to 2010)” in genres “rock, pop, hip hop, metal, or electronic.” They looked at loudness, pitch, and timbre. The main findings are that:
Yet, we find three important trends in the evolution of musical discourse: the restriction of pitch sequences (with metrics showing less variety in pitch progressions), the homogenization of the timbral palette (with frequent timbres becoming more frequent), and growing average loudness levels (threatening a dynamic richness that has been conserved until today).
The paper is clear and uses simple mathematical and statistical methods. The plots require some expertise understanding distributions, but all are crystalline and unambiguous: pop music has held the same structure over long periods of time, but individual songs are “one-note Johnnies” (with some hip hop offerings, this is literally true). These changes are not some subtle signal hidden where only advanced models can discover it. No. The decline of musical quality is plain.
And easy to place in time: the period of decline began in the later 1960s, which is no surprise to anybody.
Shown here is just one of their plots, proving popular music is growing—on average—louder:
The authors say that the “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.” There is “less variety in pitch transitions, towards a consistent homogenization of the timbral palette, and towards louder and, in the end, potentially poorer volume dynamics.”
Yes, kids, you heard it right: get off my musical lawn!