If you are an early adult and have heard some of the popular songs of your parents’ era, you may think, “the music they listen to sure sounds much better than today’s pop songs.” You may actually be right. According to a group of researchers, pop songs could actually be getting worse. But how can science prove something so subjective?
Measuring characteristics of timbre
In the study, researchers analyzed around 500,000 songs to measure the changes in popular music over the span of 55 years from 1955 to 2010. They measured the characteristics such as the tonal quality of a sound - also known as timbre. The timbre is what makes a drum different from a flute. It includes the highness or lowness of a tone to playing the bass tone vs the treble note, the melodies, chords and loudness of songs.
All of these factors create the palette from which an artist uses to compose a song. The amount of information contained in a song or a piece of music is dependent on how widely these elements are employed; and also how those elements vary within the scope of the song.
These factors lead to scientists finding out about how the pitch changes? If the song has varying levels of timbre and loudness to how many chords is used in a song? They also asked questions such as how complex are the beats and melodies and if these beats and melodies change throughout the song.
The research found that these tonal qualities have become more homogeneous as time goes by. This means that today’s music contains less musical information and is less distinguishable. To sum it up, music is beginning to sound the same.
Although this doesn’t mean that less effort and skills are required for pop artists from today, think about it - kids can easily strut into music studios to learn a pop song on a guitar in one to two weeks depending on their dedication. Classical hits from Beethoven and Mozart on the other hand, takes decades of hard work and practice to compose and to play.
Why does the homogenous pop trend continue?
Thanks to mass media and the world of commercialisation, there is not much room for music with a lot of composition information. Pop songs are made with a steady and predictable beat. It contains a verse and has a chorus. The structure repeats itself a few times in a song. This easy structure makes for easy listening and is something we can tune into on “auto-pilot”.
Classical music and jazz includes complex composition and improvisation. It takes patience and time to understand these genres of music and not something to be easily appreciated on first listening. There are no fixed verses or chorus and are not predictable compared to pop songs. It takes time to recognise and understand the conventions, structure and nuances that goes into composing and playing classical music.
What really matters?
Even though pop music is becoming homogenous, music is at the end of the day a subjective preference. While music may be becoming less refined, as long as listeners like it, that’s all that matters. Music does not lend to feelings of self-importance or being elite. As long as you are learning to play instruments to songs that you love, that is all that matters.