Fogeys and music snobs, consider yourselves vindicated:
A team led by artificial intelligence specialist Joan Serra at the Spanish National Research Council ran music from the last 50 years through some complex algorithms and found that pop songs have become intrinsically louder and more bland in terms of the chords, melodies and types of sound used.
“We found evidence of a progressive homogenization of the musical discourse,” Serra told Reuters. “In particular, we obtained numerical indicators that the diversity of transitions between note combinations – roughly speaking chords plus melodies – has consistently diminished in the last 50 years.”
They also found the so-called timbre palette has become poorer. The same note played at the same volume on, say, a piano and a guitar is said to have a different timbre, so the researchers found modern pop has a more limited variety of sounds… Intrinsic loudness is the volume baked into a song when it is recorded, which can make it sound louder than others even at the same volume setting on an amplifier. (Reuters)
Listen to an FM radio for a half hour nowadays and you’ll start to sympathize with the researchers’ case. But you should take their findings with a grain of salt for several reasons.
First, they use a selection of recordings from 1955 to 2010 from the Million Song Dataset (if you want to take a look at a list of the songs included, here it is.). Perusing the older stuff at the top of the list, you’ll see names like Blind Lemon Jefferson, Bessie Smith, Bill Haley, and the Memphis Jug Band, which precede the sampling of this particular study. Nearer to the present, not only are there many more recordings per year, but they range all over the map, from Charlotte Gainsbourg to the Lonely Island. This raises the question of how they define the word ‘pop,’ though drawing the line at 1955, by which time the industrial apparatus of pop music was largely in place, seems prudent.
Ella Fitzgerald, for example, fits into the category only in a strained way, and she’s listed in every decade from the ’30s until 2009, 13 years after her death. This means at least some of the recordings were indexed by the date of release not by the date of recording, which is a problem in itself. But she also draws attention to the convergence of different forms of modern commercial music–country, hip-hop, radio rock–on the same set of production techniques and aesthetic values. Simple forms, loudness, a certain earworm-like quality (it’s too generous to call “Call Me Maybe” catchy), that even 30 years ago, different commercially successful genres of music didn’t really share. This is probably the broader point the researchers are trying to make, but I’m not convinced a statistical argument is the best way to go about it.
When people complain about the so-called ‘loudness wars,’ they’re generally not objecting to the “intrinsic loudness” of a recording. I’ve never heard anyone who wasn’t a producer or serious audiophile even use the term. The loudness wars were an example of the music industry adapting to the technology and habits of music listeners, i.e., headphones, mp3s, even CDs. Those formats require some sort of audio compression because they aren’t pure analog. This process boosts the volume of the recording at the expense of dynamic range. The objection isn’t that the new music is too loud–you can just turn it up–it’s that it’s less varied and exciting.
Also, the selections for any given year seem completely arbitrary. Why, for the year 2010, does the Wu-Tang Clan get three tracks (they didn’t even have an album out that year!), but the relatively obscure Blacksburg dream-pop outfit Wild Nothing have an entire album? I have a hard time seeing how such a list could be analytically useful, let alone scientific, in light of such subjective distinctions.
Above: A 1966 single by The Toys on DynoVoice records, finally released commercially in 1994 by Sundazed. Statistics aside, they don’t make ‘em like this anymore.