by Jonathan Jaeger
A study coming from Spain uncovered the not-so-surprising truth that pop music all sounds the same nowadays. Reuters wrote that a team of artificial intelligence specialists led by Joan Serra at the Spanish National Research Council took music from 1955-2010 and ran it through complex algorithms to determine various musical attributes. The team discovered that music has not only become louder but also more repetitive in chordal structure and melody. Serra told Reuters:
"We found evidence of a progressive homogenization of the musical discourse. In particular, we obtained numerical indicators that the diversity of transitions between note combinations - roughly speaking chords plus melodies - has consistently diminished in the last 50 years."
There seems to be two forces working in tandem making music sound all too familiar: the notes themselves and modern day recording practices. The four-chord song, parodied so aptly in this YouTube viral hit, is simple enough to write and makes for a Billboard chart-topper. There is no need to experiment outside of this convenient box if you’re looking for pop stardom. That doesn’t mean your song doesn’t have to be catchy, it just has to fit in the right box. Notes alone aren’t responsible for the sameness that is modern pop music—the way sound is treated also plays a key role.
Sound engineers dubbed the blandness of the sonic structure as the ‘loudness wars.’ Every record is competing to be the loudest record possible, whether it be rock, pop, or metal. On the radio or on your mp3 player, the band wants their sound to pop out at you. By compressing and limiting tracks, producers and engineers are able to minimize the dynamic range of a song and push the overall volume of the entire track up. While this has its benefits – when playing music in the car or on the subway, you don’t have to do much fiddling with the volume knob – it also makes many recordings feel the same sonically, whether or not the music is unique from a melodic standpoint.
The database of music for the study stems from the Million Song Dataset, so the results seem to be statistically significant. But can the next million pop songs change this pattern? Perhaps due to the proliferation of iPods and iPhones, it will be hard to ever reverse the trend of pop music blandness. With music on-the-go, the convenience of homogenization in the sonic spectrum is almost necessary. However, it will take away from the music’s ability to breath and deviate from the norm. The expressivity of a note played at any point of the dynamic range is important for artistic integrity, although this has increasingly become an afterthought in pop music. When it comes to creativity, on the other hand, that must be the initiative of the pop star and his/her respective mainstream fanbase to change the trend of music, and that might be an even bigger impossibility.