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Scientists prove it's the same old song – only louder

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July 31, 2012

Research has shown the popular music has become louder and more homogeneous over time (Pho...

Research has shown the popular music has become louder and more homogeneous over time (Photo: Shutterstock)

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If you suspect that songs today tend to sound the same, it turns out you're right. A group of Spanish scientists looked at a huge database of songs and analyzed their trends, publishing their results in the scientific journal Nature. What they found was proof positive that, over the last few decades, songs have progressively gotten louder, decreased their pitch transitions, and generally become more homogeneous.

The scientists looked at the Million Song Dataset, a database maintained by Columbia University that collects data from over a million songs recorded since 1955, including tempo, volume and the pitches of the notes used in each song. By comparing the evolution of this data over time, they found three remarkable trends.

First off, it seems like popular music is getting louder: in other words, if you play two recordings, with your stereo set at the same volume, chances are the latest recording will make the most noise. The researchers say this isn't due to higher-quality equipment but because of a conscious decision by producers and sound engineers to catch the attention of more listeners.

The loudness of songs has been on the increase over the past few decades (Image: Nature)
The loudness of songs has been on the increase over the past few decades (Image: Nature)

The second trend that was detected was the restriction of pitch transitions, with metrics showing less variety in pitch progressions. Pitch roughly corresponds to the harmonic content of the piece, including its chords, melody, and tonal arrangements.

Lastly, the researchers detected a trend of homogenization of the timbral palette. Timbre is what makes a particular musical sound different from another, even when they have the same pitch and loudness. It is essentially the difference between different instruments playing the same note at the same loudness. They found that, after peaking in the mid 60s, timbral variety has continued to narrow.

This chart shows “timbral variety,” which is a measure of the diversity of different kinds...
This chart shows “timbral variety,” which is a measure of the diversity of different kinds of sounds appearing in songs (Image: Nature)

The researchers also go as far as to say that you could probably take a typical song from the 60s and modify it – i.e., increasing the average loudness, using common harmonic progressions and changing the instruments – to make it sound remarkably like the latest summer hit. Or, if you were so inclined, you could do the opposite just as easily.

Harder to explain is the motivation behind those trends. It could be argued that, after the experimentation of the 60s, musicians have been gradually, to some extent, "figured out" what sells the most records. Perhaps increasing the loudness really could be likened to a sort of marketing strategy that exposes more listeners (and potential buyers) to a music product. And if you believe the advertiser's maxim that "if you hear something enough times, you will eventually buy it," the homogenization and repetition of the sound transitions could be also be playing a role in this sense.

Whatever the cause, we can probably expect a few "I told you so" comments from baby boomers who have long claimed there is a lack of creativity and originality in modern music and that "things were better in my day."

Source: Nature via Cosmic Variance

About the Author
Dario Borghino Dario studied software engineering at the Polytechnic University of Turin. When he isn't writing for Gizmag he is usually traveling the world on a whim, working on an AI-guided automated trading system, or chasing his dream to become the next European thumbwrestling champion.   All articles by Dario Borghino
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14 Comments

I told you so. Things were better in my day.

This study also doesn't reflect the simplification of melodic and harmonic structures in today's songs. Or the reduction in variety of instruments. Say what you will about disco, at least it often used a wide variety of instruments including brass, woodwinds and bowed strings, especially with its purer predecessor, Philly soul. Instrumental backing today lacks the richness and lushness of yesteryear, even of groups like ABBA, never mind the experimental phase the Beatles went through. Now, you get an electric guitar, a bass, drums and maybe a keyboard. Not to mention the women nowadays all seem to mimic the shrill, nasal, closed throat style pioneered by Madonna.

Gadgeteer
31st July, 2012 @ 08:14 pm PDT

Yep, I told you so.

Nice to see some objective confirmation of an observation I have made many times in recent years. It all sound the same these days.

splatman
1st August, 2012 @ 06:40 am PDT

Haha I heard Harry Vanda say once that they came up with the name AC/DC because all their songs consisted of the chord progression A-C-D-C.

Most popular musicians will tell you there are only about three or four chord progressions you need to learn well in order to play 90% of any repertoir. The real beauty is in how you interpret them.

nutcase
1st August, 2012 @ 06:46 am PDT

I am so very happy that the music of the 30s, 40s, and 50s is still so very much available. The quality of lyrics plummeted from the 60s on a musicianship has very much disappeared. Should you doubt this, I offer (1) the lyrics to "Every Time We Say Goodbye" and (2) the music to it. Sheer magic. Keep in mind that many of the great song writers back then had very solid educations and their grasp of language superb. What passes for language in today's music leaves me cold.

TheRogue1000
1st August, 2012 @ 10:11 am PDT

The music on our local classical station (wcny.org) just gets better.

Captain Obvious
1st August, 2012 @ 04:06 pm PDT

Yes, musically, sonically and lyrically recorded popular music has been going down the drain, but looking at that graph, which covers the last fifty years, meaning only half of the entire lifetime of music recording, there's still hope this will all reverse.

My little home studio is technically better than the stuff they used to record Dark Side of the Moon on, so it's definitely not a technical problem. Another strange thing, most decent studio musicians nowadays have far better technique than the Great Names from the sixties and seventies, but most modern music is lacking in creativity and "timbral variety".

My take on this : lack of musical education in the general public and an oversupply of recorded music. In the early 20th century most people sang or played an instrument weekly. Now everyone has an mp3 player and music has become a disposable product.

And the ever rising 'everything we do is so great' attitude in the pop music world.

ElSmurf
1st August, 2012 @ 11:27 pm PDT

There's a lot more music now then there used to be.

Talent is proportionately the same as it used to be.

Say you get 1 out of 100 being great - that means for 1000 you get 10 great ones.

For 100 000 you get 1000 great ones.

Time has not changed - a day is 24hrs = 1440 minutes.

The queue trying to be heard has gotten a lot, lot longer.

The number of influential record labels has not kept up with the increase in the queue.

Good music requires top talent.

To sift through 100 000 people to get 1000 great ones takes a lot of man hours.

A lot of talent will be missed if there are not enough people to look for it.

Long live the good music!

Kevin Cloete
2nd August, 2012 @ 04:22 am PDT

Told you so. But I'm only 23 years old......

You don't need to be a babyboomer to recognize the importance of dynamical range in music.

kwarks
2nd August, 2012 @ 08:28 am PDT

The notion that the "quality" of music can be determined by parsing statistics of questionable relevance is ludicrous. Would a similar "study" determine the quality of visual art using statistics gleaned from say, the color range of the palate and the techniques utilized to create the art? I think not.

Mr. Cloete makes a very good point. The sheer volume of music being created (and its potential audience) has expanded exponentially over the past decade, as have the ways in which music is used. Making broad statements about the quality of lyrics verges on stupidity; any one holding up one song as being superior to all others in this regard simply doesn't have a clue, or is hearing, but not listening.

Peter Wright
2nd August, 2012 @ 10:05 am PDT

I think the same amount of "good" music or "different" music or whatever makes it appealing still exists today. In fact there's probably more of that music and it's BETTER today.

The sheer amount of crap music out there is what these numbers are great at showing. Their database is only 40 times larger than mine, which for a university vs. the avg internet user (maybe above avg music listener) seems a little weak. Are they taking into account music from all over the world in all genres? Or just the music we hear on the radio? (if you can stand to turn it on anymore)

johnweythek
2nd August, 2012 @ 09:15 pm PDT

Look on Youtube for Axis of Awesome, its not scientific but it is kinda funny how it relates to this article.

Ryan Scott Kochish
3rd August, 2012 @ 11:30 am PDT

All to formula.

2 things to note...

1. Turn a video camera on a music group, and they start to goof around like the Beatles in "Hard Day's Night"

2. Lyrical content today is 100% predictable, and therefore just boring. The "job" of rock'n'roll is to be bad and push the boundaries; where else were they going to end up other than becoming sexually explicit? Gotta outdo the previous wave. Lord knows where they go from here.

When you can break it down to a computer program that can write an acceptable song, which has happened, then yeah, there's a formula that works.

Fortunately, you can look harder and always find music that is actually experimental and/or daring. Don't just listen to what everybody else listens to.

FastGuy
4th August, 2012 @ 03:18 am PDT

Today's musicians have plenty of talent and there are many beautiful compositions being released every month (accompanied by plenty of rubbish too). If you think music is getting worse, you are probably getting too old.

jonoxn
4th August, 2012 @ 08:03 am PDT

They had to do a study to figure that out? Why not just quiz some recording engineers? The change is due to the advancement in recording and playback technology. Doing subtle pitch and dynamic changes on 60s home gear would be totally lost, so you had to be aggressive. It was also much more difficult to mix a large number of sounds together as mixing was commonly done on the spot like a live performance. 8-track recording didn't start kicking in until the end of the 60s. With digital production, there really is no limit to how many layers can be added.

Whether this is good or bad is a matter of taste. It's very much like CGI in movies verse doing everything by hand with models and sets. I personally like the less refined hand made feel.

Spicoli
4th August, 2012 @ 06:26 pm PDT
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