Music ain’t what it used to be

Older generations have a annoying habit of bemoaning the quality of music enjoyed by the young, and to be honest I am no exception. I detest the music of Engelbert Humperdink with a passion. But do claims that modern pop music is crap stand up to scrutiny, or are they simply a consequence of old age and its associated miserablism?

Whilst it is at least politically correct to challenge old-fartist criticism of contemporary pop music, there is some evidence to back up the claims of the whingers. An acoustic analysis of pop songs contained in the Million Song Database suggests that in recent decades they have become louder, their pitch range more restricted, and timbre more homogenised. In more subjective terms, music has become less musical, more dumbed down, and, er, crap.

Joan Serrà and her colleagues at the Artificial Intelligence Research Institute in Barcelona investigated the pitch, timbre and loudness of popular music recordings from 1955 to 2010, and found in them a number of interesting statistical patterns. Some of these patterns have remained stable over a period of more than half a century, which, say the study authors, suggests a tendency toward conventionalism in the creation of pop music. A lack of compositional creativity, perhaps? However, the researchers also detected a restriction of pitch sequences, an homogenisation of tone, and an increasing average loudness.

Part of this could be due to the use of cheap electronic sound sources such as digital synthesisers and samplers, and the recording techniques known as limiting and compression, which increase average loudness by reducing the dynamic range within a recorded sound sequence. But can music technology account for all of the observed changes in musical quality, or are there also differences in the artistic impulse behind contemporary pop music?

Serrà et al., “Measuring the evolution of contemporary western popular music”, Nature Scientific Reports 2, 51 (2012)