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.



  1. Margaret says:

    What a terrific analysis – bravo! I think your isolation hypothesis has a lot of merit. (And maybe those so-called scientists just don’t like contemporary lyrics!)
    I love this sort of blog post. The listening range and theoretical depth that you bring to your music criticism makes such posts applicable to art in general , not just music, and therefore a source of inspiration for all sort of creativity. Thank you.

  2. Patrick says:

    Great reading. It’s nice to read a true music enthusiast talking about something he knows. This scientific study was pretty much ridicule.

  3. Lauren says:

    I think the path to music becoming popular is more of a dialogue between what is put out there, when and how it’s put out there and how people respond, vs. just how people respond. There is a lot of music that might be more popular if people were more exposed to it, or if it were packaged differently, however what record studios decide to fund and how they decide to market it is out of the majority of people’s hands. I’m not sure if studios today would be likely to produce a long, weird popular song like Bohemian Rhapsody, seeing as it’s not simple or danceable. Even in 1975, it seems like they saw a need for special marketing for this song: according to Wikipedia(!), the “single was accompanied by a promotional video, which many scholars consider ground-breaking.” My point is, everyone knows Bohemian Rhapsody.

    • REDLiteDJ says:

      You make a good point, I probably oversimplified the pop music creation process a bit, but I honestly don’t think that the whole record companies having control over what is popular argument is quite what it seems. Yes, they clearly have a lot of control over what gets a lot of exposure, but they usually start by choosing artists who have already proven themselves to be liked by a lot of people without their help, and the ones that get major label deals without a grassroots following are chosen based on their similarity to other artists that have proven themselves to be massively popular. Everybody knows that major labels are interested in making money first, and the best way to do that is to sell records to as many people as possible. They have full-time staffs working nonstop to figure out what people will respond to and they push that stuff as hard as they can to get those sales. If one of the majors decided to go on a some kind of crusade and promoted the hell out of an Ex Oblivione album, it would definitely get more exposure than it would otherwise, but the other labels would be swooping up all the other artists that would be more instantly appealing to a mass audience and they would most likely lose money pushing it. I actually think that record companies know really accurately what the average pop music fan wants to hear. It’s their job, it’s a multi-million dollar industry. They’re not going to waste their time and money on things that aren’t going to sell well. You could maybe make the argument that record labels shouldn’t be so concerned with money, and should instead sometimes put out some stuff that isn’t going to sell quite as well, but that’s a very different argument and I don’t think that doing that would actually alter the course of pop music much. It might strengthen some alternative musics, but I don’t think it would change what pop music sounds like. It’s working under a completely different paradigm than other music. Another way to look at it is this: what does it say about pop music fans that they allow the record companies to have so much control over what they listen to? It means that they don’t really care that much what sounds become popular, they just want to be in on what’s popular to connect with the other people that are doing the same thing. I’m not saying they’re not genuinely touched by the music they listen to, I’m certain they are, but if it was all about finding the coolest, most interesting sounds, they’d be scouring record stores and obscure blogs for recommendations on some fringey stuff. But it’s not about that for them, it’s about feeling connected and included. The sounds in pop music are meant to appeal most to people who honestly don’t have much interest in music itself, but are more interested in the connections with people that can be made and strengthened by sharing the same musical familiarity. Does that make sense? I hope I’m responding to your comment adequately. You are right that it is more of a dialogue than I made it seem, but I don’t really think that record companies are really that interested in pushing stuff on people that they don’t already want to hear and buy, it’s just not in their interest. Maybe I’m wrong though!

      To speak to your “Bohemian Rhapsody” example, I think the first thing to remember is just how rare stuff like that song is in pop music. It’s not like there were Bohemian Rhapsodies coming out every other month in the 70s and then over time those kinds of songs were removed from the pop music discourse. “Bohemian Rhapsody” was a fluke that was only possible because Queen had already built itself a large audience by making more traditional pop music (“Killer Queen”, “Now I’m Here”, etc.), which made the average listener much more likely to give it a chance than if “Bohemian Rhapsody” had been their first single. We can’t know for sure, but in my opinion, if Queen had come out of nowhere and thrown “Bohemian Rhapsody” at a record executive, they’d probably get rejected for being unmarketable, because in that situation it probably would be. I think if a record company had pushed “Bohemian Rhapsody” onto the airwaves as the first thing anyone had ever heard by Queen, people would not have been as receptive to it. But since their fans already had a relationship with the band, then they were much more perceptive to this fairly experimental pop record. I mean how much more likely are you to like your friend’s song over somebody you’ve never heard of before? I think a similar thing could be said of Kanye West’s “My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy” and the accompanying film “Runaway”. If he hadn’t already had numerous traditional, successful hit pop songs, the majors would not have let something like that album happen. But since Kanye had established that following, then his fans gave him more room to do something more risky like this.

      I see examples like “Bohemian Rhapsody” and “My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy” as being flukes that pop up every now and then when the stars align around a certain artist or group of artists in the right way, not as something that used to be common and is now absent.

      I hope I responded to what you were trying to say, I’m really glad you took the time to read this post and respond to it critically, you really made me question a lot of my thinking on this and adjust my perspective. I really appreciate it!

  4. Lauren says:

    I agree with everything you say here, but there is a bit of a chicken and egg thing, because people also tend to like what they are familiar with. So, record companies may fund stuff that people already like, but the reason people like it may have a lot to do with what else they’ve been exposed to.

    The Queen and Kanye examples may be rarities, but they show that if an audience trusts an artist, then they can equally like something less familiar by that artist. Is it good for humans to bond over simple things? Sure, I’m in favor of any kind of universal human bonding too. But, I think humans might be better off if we could also bond in a more universal way over slightly more complex things.

    So, yea, I think record companies should take a few more (smart) risks… for the sake of humanity, you know. I don’t really think that that many people seek more complex stuff out, if there is a simpler, easier, more familiar option — even when their/our souls or psyches need it.

    • REDLiteDJ says:

      Yeah, that is true. Hm. Hard to say, I think we’re both doing a fair amount of speculation on the subject, and I can definitely see valid reasons to support what you say. Maybe I’m influenced by my time spent djing and seeing what people respond to right in front of me, but that’s maybe not a representative sample of how humans in general react to music. I think in the end, you’re arguing more about how it SHOULD be, and I’m more arguing about how it is now. I think it’s good to think about both, so thanks for bringing up all that stuff, I think it gives a fuller picture of the issue.

  5. zach says:

    Hey thanks for the good post. One thing you said really pertained to something I have been reading and mulling over since three days ago.

    I would expect nothing different from an artificial intelligence specialist – using science to prove his topics importance, even if it is sorta subtle. There have been a lot of writings, in the form of a movement or current about the AI and all the topics that go with it, automation, intelligent systems, perception etc. Many of them seem to dance around or reference directly pop culture.
    If anyone here has ever read “Paul virilio: war and cinema” you can dig whats out there as far as the concepts being developed. In concert with Virilios’ other work ” Visionics and Electronic Apartheid: Automating the Interpretation of Reality” and things like Slavoj Zizek: interrogating the real. After reading those a picture formed and ever since then little science/pop nuggets like this study appear as un-breaded chicken, just waiting to be batter dipped and thrown in the hot oil.

    It seems like when people say ‘understand’ they are trying to find a metaphor to relate to the thing. A familiar metaphor that can be embraced with a proclamation of “we understand what that is”
    ” 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.”

    This thing you said goes directly to what I was reading 3 days ago by Julian Jaynes. In his argument he describes the difference between a model and a theory using Bohrs atomic model. The theory is a relationship between the model and the things the model is supposed to represent. “A theory is thus a metaphor between the model and data. And understanding in science is the feeling of similarity between complicated data and a familiar model.” The theory can be disproved once new data is found, but the model still remains as it was. ANYWAY
    He goes on to distinguish an ‘analog’. Which in this case is a less of a hypothetical/scientific model and more like a map. “constructed from something well known”
    So to me this sort of starts boiling down to, we have a yard stick that we can all see is the same length all the time. But if I walked 7 miles and you walked 7 miles, we might have vastly different opinions on how far that was, based on our body feelings, endurance level etc. Our experience of the distance is what we consider known, even if the analog we were navigating with is an actual direct correlate.
    I feel like I am making a detailed argument hahaa but I do not really know where I am going with all this.
    Did we really need a Million song Dataset to know producers started compressing recorded music more and more since 1950? Absolutely not.
    Does anyone really need science to back up their observations and opinions about what they hear?

    • REDLiteDJ says:

      I like how you distinguish between model, data, and theory, I’m going to have to think about that some more (and maybe try to get ahold of some of those books you mentioned) but I feel like that might be a really important distinction to make in our day to day thinking. It really bothered me in this study that they felt like they could talk about something as broad as 57 years of popular music by analyzing a few numerical indicators found in it. I think those scientists had that “I understand this” feeling that you mentioned long before they actually did understand it. I’m sure the findings of the study are very impressive to them and people like them that think they already know what pop music is and how it works, they probably thought it was groundbreaking to find so many facets to study about something so trivial, in their eyes. I feel like good science should respect the thing it’s studying though and really take it seriously and at all times assume that they DON’T understand it so they can always be looking harder for the truth about a thing, or a way of understanding it fully.

      I find it interesting that you define understanding the way you do as well, the way you explain it as taking unfamiliar information and relating it to a familiar system. Understanding becomes a much more subjective pursuit in this way of thinking because it is limited to the things that you already know when embarking on new understanding. You and I can “understand” something (find a familiar system to relate this new information to) to the best of our individual abilities, but we will have different things that are familiar to us so the way we “understand” this new thing, even if we both understand it as best we can, will be quite different. So maybe when we tell someone “you just don’t understand”, what we might often mean is something like “you haven’t had the right experiences in your life to to have a comfortable, familiar model to relate this information to.” I like this idea of understanding being more of a spectrum though, you can understand more or less or just different shades of a thing depending on what kind of things you already have in your mind to relate it to. Thanks for the thoughts.

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