All Sounds the Same, Only Louder

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Pop music hits, say researchers, are losing diversity and turning noisier

As it turns out, our elders were correct after all. Our pop music does sound pretty much the same. This long-held notion was found to be true by a group of Spanish researchers who analysed a database of nearly half a million songs released between 1955 and 2010. They found that tone, instrument choices, note combinations, and the transitions between chords have all become less and less diverse over time. This was found true of music across various genres, including rock, pop, hip-hop, metal and electronic music.

The study, which was recently published in Scientific Reports, was led by Joan Serrà of the Spanish National Research Council. The researchers used the freely-available Million Song Dataset—a database of a million hit songs across generations that has been converted into mineable data bits by Columbia University researchers–for the study.

Serrà writes in the paper, ‘We found evidence of a progressive homogenisation of the musical discourse. The diversity of transitions between note combinations—roughly speaking chords plus melodies—has consistently diminished in the past 50 years.’ He adds that the ‘timbre’ of songs has also become narrower. According to the researchers, unlike the 1960s—where unfamiliar instruments, variations in volume over the course of a song, and a variety of chord transitions were used—hits today are restricted to a popular chord and note combinations.

The study, the first of its kind to attempt to measure the ‘intrinsic loudness’ of a song, also found that modern songs have grown progressively louder over the past 50 years. This study seems to support claims that the music industry is engaged in a ‘loudness war’, where new albums are digitally mastered, the recordings compressed and distorted until they peak at maximum amplitude, often sacrificing sound quality.

According to Serrà, old songs could be made popular with the youth by simply making them louder and blander: ‘An old tune re-recorded using modern techniques that allow for increased loudness and with slightly simpler chord progressions and new instrument sonorities could be perceived as novel and fashionable.’

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