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“Pop music is dead.” You’ve heard the refrain dropped by nostalgic music lovers at backyard barbecues. And it’s no surprise. Everyone thinks the tunes of their generation marked a sort of cultural pinnacle and that music has since become bland.
But they’re wrong, according to a new computer program that has systematically charted the evolution of popular music. By treating each hit song like a fossil, the London-based research team found that America’s mainstream music has remained stylistically diverse over the last 50 years, with one decade as an exception: the 1980s. The research was published on Tuesday in the journal Royal Society Open Science.
The algorithm also spots the three years that inspired the most creativity in musical composition and shows that certain musical characteristics often attributed to the Beatles and the Rolling Stone actually predated these bands. (More on that below.)
The researchers relied on Billboard’s Hot-100 list, the music industry’s tome that ranks the most popular singles by radio plays, online streaming and record sales. (They define pop music as any song that makes that list, regardless of genre.) The team downloaded nearly every song on this chart dating back to 1960 –- close to 17,000 total tracks.
The computer program scanned each tune for two features: harmony and timbre. Harmonies are the musical chords that define a song’s melody. Timbre (pronounced tamber) describes the character of music, the quality of tone. For instance, a piano and a guitar can play the same chord, but they sound different to the ear. Timbre is the word for that audio difference.
Next, after deciphering the harmonic and timbre qualities, the team built a “fossil record” of pop music, defined by when certain chords and timbre styles became fashionable or disappeared from our cultural consciousness.
For instance, they spotted the death of dominant 7th chords, which were a staple of jazz in the 1960s. The use of these chords gave a shade of gritty tension to Blues music and were featured in tracks by Elvis Presley, such as “I Feel So Bad.”
“We see in the ‘60s that the charts were filled with dominant 7th chords, but then they decline and never come back to life,” said lead author and computer scientist Matthias Mauch of Queen Mary University of London. “Other features rose into the charts, such as minor chords in funk, soul and eventually disco.”
“Original formulations by Charles Darwin assumed a constant rate of evolution, where everything changes in small steps. That turned out to be slightly false, as 20th century biologists recognized that life on Earth is punctuated by bursts of very fast rates of evolution,” Mauch said.
Pop music follows the same pattern. The team highlights three years that represent musical revolutions — that is, years that sparked a boon of innovative styles and variety: 1964, 1983 and 1993.
The second landmark movement in 1983 came with the adoption of aggressive, synthesized percussion — think Phil Collins and his pulsating drum machine — and loud, guitar-heavy Arena rock with lots of chord changes, such as with Mötley Crüe, Van Halen, REO Speedwagon, Queen, Kiss and Alice Cooper. These rock bands were joined by new wave acts — like the Police and Cyndi Lauper — plus a surge of metronomic dance-pop heroes like Madonna and the Pet Shop Boys. (Michael Jackson’s Thriller dropped in late-1982) Meantime, classic country and folk lost popularity and wouldn’t return until the early aughts.
But these sounds and styles of the Reagan era flooded the music scene, pushing out genres like country and folk to the point that mid-to-late 1980s became most homogenous period in music over the last 50 years, based on the team’s computer analysis.
originally posted by: TheLieWeLive
They downloaded nearly 17000 songs from the billboards dating back to the 60's.
I wonder just how legal their downloads were? Are we to believe they spent nearly 17000 dollars to prove this?
Who am I kidding, would it really surprise me if they did actually spent thousands on something like this? No I guess not.
originally posted by: ArMaP
If they used the Bilboard's Top 100 then we are talking about tastes in the US, not really about the quality of the music created during those years.
Also, in latter years (mostly starting in the 1980s) those tastes were highly influenced by the record companies telling radio networks what music they should play.
originally posted by: Krazysh0t
a reply to: WarminIndy
The article isn't saying that music from yesteryear isn't being appreciated. It is just analyzing diversity as the songs are released. Trust me. I know first hand that music from yesteryear is appreciated. I'm about to see Del McCoury (Bluegrass legend) play this weekend. I've seen Tom Petty live. I'm a big fan of the Grateful Dead and the Allman Brothers, and I've seen many contemporary bands cover older songs and do them justice.
The also keep in mind that the article isolated itself to billboard top 100 hits. So if the song didn't make the top 100, they didn't account for it.