August 13, 2012 at 3:10 pm

Scientists: Music All Sounds the Same (Girl Talk a Fraud?)

music all sounds the same study

An image from the study

Finally, science has told us what our grandparents already knew: Today’s pop music all sounds the same, and it’s too loud.

This is the conclusion of a study published last month by a band of Spanish scientists in esteemed scientific journal Nature. Working from the Million Song Dataset (a collaboration between Columbia University’s Laboratory for the Recognition and Organization of Speech and Audio and Evolver.fm publisher The Echo Nest), the team studied the data to determine variations in intrinsic loudness, pitch, and timbre over the course of roughly fifty years of pop music.

One way to describe what they found is that maybe Girl Talk, with its ability to blend apparently disparate pop samples into a cohesive unit, isn’t so impressive after all.

The researchers behind “Measuring the Evolution of Contemporary Western Popular Music” broke down music from the Million Song Dataset into “a ‘vocabulary’ of musical elements” they call ‘codewords.’ These are elements like pitches and chords. Then, they analyzed the frequency of pitch codewords, and the transitions between them. They found that the network of transitions between pop music codewords was becoming sparser over time, suggesting that melodies and chord progressions are making the same transitions more often (a la Axis of Awesome).

They also discovered that pop music is getting intrinsically louder — a phenomenon known in the industry as the loudness wars – and that the timbres, or unique sonic characteristics of the instruments, are becoming homogenized. In short, “turn that goddamn radio down.”

The team says the data point towards “an important degree of conventionalism, in the sense of blockage or no-evolution, in the creation and production of contemporary western popular music,” claiming that “popular music would have no clear trends and show no considerable changes in more than fifty years.” They say that all one would need to do to make old music sound contemporary is to simplify the chord progressions, use contemporary timbres, and crank up the volume.

That might be true, but it seems a bit harsh, from where I am sitting. Sure, our melodies and progressions might sound more uniform, but that doesn’t mean the songs do, too. U2′s “With or Without You” will never strike me the same as Maroon 5′s “She Will Be Loved,” even if the chords and timbres match. Country legend Harlan Howard said country music was “nothing but three chords and the truth” — but even if the chords are the same, the truths from him and Taylor Swift surely diverge to an extent. Likewise, the transitions from the summer of love to disco, punk, new wave, and indie could hardly be termed periods of “no evolution.” Cole Porter’s “I Get a Kick Out of You” might be thematically tied to Ke$ha’s “Your Love is My Drug,” but adding synthesizers and simplifying the chord progressions wouldn’t make them sound the same.

Still, the team’s point stands, and it’s proven with science. Maybe pop music has gotten a bit rigid — and it does need a degree of adventure and surprise to feel new and important. The researchers offer no suggestions on how that might be done, but perhaps a simple awareness of this conventionalism will get producers thinking less mechanically about the next pop hit they build. Either that, or there should be a global ban on I-iv-V until we all learn to like other chord progressions, too.