Have we really come to a point where we’re trying to get factual, experimental justifications for our arbitrary biases on art? Oh I’m sorry, maybe you haven’t heard that some team of learned scientists conducted a study that concluded that modern pop music has gone through a “progressive homogenization of the musical discourse” since 1955. These scientists claim that using “numerical indicators”, they have discovered that the “diversity of transitions between note combinations – roughly speaking chords plus melodies – has consistently diminished in the past 50 years.” The other major claims are that the “timbre palette”, or the types of sounds used in pop music, has also narrowed its spectrum and that pop music has also gotten progressively “louder” in that period of time.
When I was in music theory classes back in college, we learned about the parameters of music; the various characteristics that are manipulated or ignored in varying degrees by musicians when creating any piece of music. Things like rhythm, meter, key/scale, melody, harmony, tempo, timbre, texture, successive attack activity, articulation, dynamics, instrumentation, etc. These are merely the characteristics of the sounds themselves, and I would argue that things like social/historical context, referencing of past works, and, with the advent of recorded music, things like audio fidelity are also creative decisions made by artists that make music. That’s 15 parameters of music that I came up with just off the top of my head. I would hope that established scientists would be able to come up with more ways of studying a thing than some dude with nothing more than an undergraduate music degree, but this study makes extremely broad claims about the trajectory of pop music as a whole using only three parameters, the others are not taken into account in any capacity. We could stop right there and feel confident in not trusting the conclusions these scientists came to, but I think we’ll learn more if we continue. Examining the method they used for this study, I find it quite telling that they chose the particular characteristics they did – successive pitches, timbre, and loudness – since these just happen to be the most often manipulated parameters in music from the Western European music tradition. This blind ethnocentrism was I’m sure unintentional, but the damage done by it is not mitigated by this fact. American pop music has always been heavily influenced, arguably primarily influenced, by the musical leanings of our black population. The music made by blacks in this country is certainly influenced by Western European traditions, but also has undeniable roots in cultures with completely different musical priorities than that of the white population. African music, and thus American pop music, puts a much heavier emphasis on rhythm than any European music did before contact. Think about all the pop subgenres that are named after rhythmic characteristics: swing, jump blues, funk, disco, bounce, bass, crunk, hip-hop, house, ska, reggae, dancehall, dubstep; these are all styles of music that gain their defining characteristics through rhythm. I’ve searched through the findings of this study and have found no evidence that any effort was put into studying the rhythmic characteristics of our music over these decades they cite. Why are successive groups of pitches in pop music more important to study than rhythmic trends found in it? Any answer besides “they’re not” would be, at best, blatantly unscientific, and at worst, ignorant, ethnocentric, and even racist. No, I don’t mean to call these particular scientists racists, but I truly believe that the priorities shared by this scientific study and the Western European music tradition do betray an undeniable European-leaning bias. And let’s not forget the other dozen or so other musical parameters this study ignores for no apparent reason.
Someone reading the previous paragraph might suggest that the study must simply be improved to account for these missing parameters. I’d say that if such a study were to be conducted, then I’d be in favor of using all of those parameters I described above and hopefully many more, but let’s be honest with ourselves. Even an in-depth analysis of all of these characteristics of a single piece of music (or several pieces of music studied together) cannot adequately sum up the full effect and power that music holds. Painters don’t paint screenshots from Doppler radar, they paint clouds. Photographers don’t snap photos of topographical maps, they shoot mountains. Every map is necessarily an approximation and a distortion of what it represents. Detailed descriptions are useful in navigating complex systems, but we are fools if we think that they can replace them. My main criticism of this study isn’t just that it ignores all other parameters of music besides pitch, timbre, and loudness, but that it assumes that any description or set of “numerical indicators” could possibly be used to make claims about something as vastly complex as music.
But hey, I can even put all that meta-level criticism aside for a minute if you want to dig deeper into the individual claims these scientists make about their embarrassingly limited set of parameters. It would probably be easiest to start with their loudness claim, since it’s possibly the only metric they studied that is legitimately quantifiable (in decibels). By “loudness” in the sense these scientists are using it, what they really mean is “dynamic range”. This is the phenomenon you experience when you play an Al Green album on your stereo, and then afterward put on a Rye Rye album and the previously comfortable volume you were groovin’ to is now punishingly loud (that happens to you guys right?). This is purely achieved through technological advances in music production and engineering, and nobody needed a scientist to study a million-song database to tell us that this has been occurring since the advent of audio recording. Whether you think this trend is good, bad, or unimportant to the value of music is entirely subjective but I can say one thing about it with complete confidence: if the cats behind the mixing boards in 1955 could have made music as loud as it is now, they would have. Every producer of pop music ever has endeavored to do whatever was artistically and technically possible to make their music as immediately powerful as possible, and decibel level is the most obvious and recognized form of power that music can have. So the fact that this trend exists is just a way of reiterating everything we already know about how pop music works. I think the appropriate response to this particular claim is: “So?” All you lose when you narrow the dynamic range of a piece of music is subtlety, a characteristic that has never been of primary importance to pop music. Pop music is all about being instantly appealing. Pop music has never been about subtlety, it’s about being popular. Popular means a lot of people like it. Pop music is the one kind of music that is entirely defined by the size of its audience, not any fundamental musical characteristic. Any similarities in pop music throughout history stem from similarities in what we, as human listeners, naturally enjoy listening to. But pop in itself needs no certain musical characteristics to be defined as such. Every other genre of music we discuss fits into its genre because of various musical characteristics. Rock music has a lot of guitars and yelling. Jazz music has a lot of horns and not as much yelling. Rap has people rapping. Pop music is whatever sounds that the largest group of music fans happen to enjoy. It seems that people, in general, like to hear music that is simple, emotionally relatable, and danceable. However, if tomorrow a majority of humans started really enjoying austere tuba drone ensembles, then austere tuba drone ensembles would be playing pop music. It so happens that a majority of music listeners on this planet don’t care for austere tuba drone ensembles, so other things are instead viewed as pop music. But it’s important to understand that about pop. Our society makes it what it is, and in a sense its popularity is not only its defining characteristic, it’s also its main asset. There’s value in a large group of people knowing some of the same songs, no matter the content. Pop music is a way for a massive group of people to feel connected to one another, and I think this is why such a thing as pop music exists. It’s not for people who are connoisseurs of sound, it’s for people who desire to connect with a lot of other people in their culture through sound. It’s always been that way, and there is nothing wrong with it. The more things we can connect about on a large scale, I’m for it.
I find the narrowing of the “timbre palette” to be the most bewildering of the claims in this study. Since 1955, there has only been an increase in the scope of sound-making devices available to us. We still have, and use, tons of instruments used in 1955, but we also now have things like drum machines, synthesizers, samplers, and complex effects processors at use as well. I wasn’t there when they were coming up with the method for studying the timbre palette of the songs in their data set, but there’s gotta be something fishy going on there, right? There’s no way there’s been anything but an increase of possible sounds in pop music since the 1950s. Not only do we have more access to a greater spectrum of sound-makers now than ever before, but also the possible timbre combinations available now are staggering. You can make a drum beat now using a recording of a Yamaha bass drum recorded in 1985 in an acoustically isolated room, a Tama snare drum recorded in 1974 in a home studio in Jamaica, a Zildjian high hat recorded in 1968 by Berry Gordy, and a ride cymbal from a 1948 Dizzy Gillespie record. And then play a Stadivarius violin over the top. That doesn’t sound like the narrowing of a timbre palette to me. But hey what do I know, maybe somehow they’re right. If so, it just brings me back to the argument I’ve made time and time again: vast timbral possibilities have never been the goal of pop music. It’s supposed to be simple.
Similar arguments can be made about the alleged decrease in pitch sequence variety. The only thing lost by this decrease would be, again, subtlety, which for all the reasons above should not be a concern for pop music. Let’s not forget that there is a functionally infinite amount of music available to anyone that never makes it near a Billboard chart. If you really value music with the absolute greatest variety in pitch sequences, then plug in some headphones right now and look up “Schoenberg” in YouTube, you’ll have all the music you’ll ever need to satisfy your pitch-variety thirst. Pop music, in fact no single genre of music, must satisfy all of our musical needs as a culture. The critics bemoaning the increased simplification of pop music are only upset that the music they enjoy listening to isn’t popular music. They don’t get to experience that feeling of being in the same room with hundreds or thousands of people that all know the same song by heart. They feel under-represented in the pop music world, and somehow feel threatened that if pop music moves in a direction opposite to the music they love, they will eventually be completely alone in their experiences. It’s more a fear of isolation than a true aesthetic concern at work here. We all need to just take a deep breath and realize that there are always going to be people that will listen to pop music because it connects them to the people around them, and there will also always be people that are into more fringey shit that is more about interesting or unusual musical choices. These groups pose no threat to one another and there is no reason why they can’t peacefully coexist. I think even if everything this study said was totally true, then a more valid way of interpreting the findings is that given that pop music is about being simple, emotionally relatable, and danceable, then it sounds to me like as a culture we’re just getting better and better at making pop music! We’re cutting out all the excess fluff that gets in the way of everybody who wants to be listening to pop music just enjoying a simple, catchy song. If you don’t want to listen to music that sounds like that, then listen to different stuff.
You know I might not have felt the need to really pick apart every detail of this study if they hadn’t pushed their subjective conclusions so much in it. Connotation-packed words like “restriction” and “homogenization” are used in favor of more neutral, scientific terms. Phrases like “threatening a dynamic richness that has been conserved until today” have no place in a scientific study. If they had simply studied the limited set of information they had, presented their as-objective-as-possible findings, and let us decide what to think about it, I wouldn’t have as much of an issue. But it’s this subtext found in the language of the study that reveals the hidden biases and prejudices these scientists obviously had going into this study. It’s times like these we need to remember that, in practice, there is no such thing as science, only scientists, and the claims they make are only as good as the integrity and diligence of their work. Don’t let anybody fool you into thinking this was an objective or exhaustive study, and never forget to be critical of anyone that claims “proof” of something that is not provable.