A few days ago, as I sat watching a video of Pink Floyd’s David Gilmour performing “Shine On You Crazy Diamond” live at the Royal Festival Hall in 2002 (check out the video here), I was taken by how amazing of a song it was. I prefer classic songs more than I do today’s popular music, and while a lot of this has to do with personal preference, I feel that there had to be something about this song that made it an objectively superior song to Despacito. So I looked into it.
A group of researchers looked into this and attempted to study music over the decades scientifically to determine what was going on. Using a publicly-available database of information about 464,411 from 1955 through 2010, they studied the changes in music. They based their studies on three aspects of music: “loudness, pitch, and timbre.”
“Loudness basically correlates with our perception of sound amplitude or volume (notice that we refer to the intrinsic loudness of a recording, not the loudness a listener could manipulate). Pitch roughly corresponds to the harmonic content of the piece, including its chords, melody, and tonal arrangements. Timbre accounts for the sound color, texture, or tone quality, and can be essentially associated with instrument types, recording techniques, and some expressive performance resources.“
They concluded several things. Timbral quality, first of all, peaked in the 1960’s and has been declining ever since. Musicians are using less instruments in their songs, and they are less creative in their sounds. This is a clear difference between the two songs I mentioned in the beginning.
A less obvious difference is pitch, which has also been declining. Songs use more similar notes today than they did decades ago. Musicians are using “less variety in pitch progressions” and sticking with notes that sound alike as opposed to adding variation in the range of notes.
Lastly, modern songs are louder than songs used to be. This can be attributed to what is being called the “loudness war” in the music industry, a term “used to describe the apparent competition to release recordings with increasing loudness, perhaps with the aim of catching potential customers’ attention in a music broadcast.” As a result, the difference between the loudest and softest parts of songs have shrunk, which actually lowers the quality of the sound.
Another fact about modern popular songs is that the majority are written by only two people. Writers Max Martin and Lukasz Gottwald are responsible for the hit songs of Britney Spears, Pink, Katy Perry, Taylor Swift, Avril Lavigne, Flo Rida, and Miley Cyrus, as well as many others.
Popular music today is more about making money than actually creativity, and it is having a measurable effect on the quality of songs being produced. Modern music is declining. This is not to say that all music today is worse; there is plenty of quality music today that I enjoy. However, much of the most popular music is measurably worse, and I definitely believe that people should have more of an appreciation for the deeper complexities of music.
Getlen, Larry. “Every Song You Love Was Written by the Same Two Guys.” New York Post, New York Post, 4 Oct. 2015, nypost.com/2015/10/04/your-favorite-song-on-the-radio-was-probably-written-by-these-two/.
Serrà, Joan, et al. “Measuring the Evolution of Contemporary Western Popular Music.” Scientific Reports, Nature.com, 26 July 2012, http://www.nature.com/articles/srep00521#ref-link-section-55.
Million Song Database: https://labrosa.ee.columbia.edu/millionsong/