Can the science of pop bring lessons to Classical?
THE HEADLINE was clearly designed to be provocative. “Pop music today does all sound the same,” declared an article in this paper (July 27th; url.ie/fo3d) about a study published in the journal Scientific Reports. The message was clear. A Reuters report, which the article quoted, explained that “A team led by artificial intelligence specialist Joan Serrà at the Spanish National Research Council ran music from the past 50 years through some complex algorithms and found that pop songs had become intrinsically louder and more bland in terms of the chords, melodies and types of sound used.”
A week later, Irish Times columnist Brian Boyd put it rather more colourfully ( url.ie/fo3e). “If you’ve felt alienated and irritated by the pop music charts over the past few years, console yourself: it’s been scientifically proven that the music you listened to when you were younger actually was a whole lot better than the beat-infested, pop-assembly-line rubbish that now thumps its way out of your radio and clutters up the charts . . . It has got to the stage where you could swap songs around the handful of pop artists who dominate the singles charts and no one would really know the difference.”
Now, I’m no expert in the pop music of the last 50 years, but it’s easy to see where the authors – there were five researchers in all – are coming from. Their own summary (included with the full article at url.ie/fo27) states: “Popular music is a key cultural expression that has captured listeners’ attention for ages. Many of the structural regularities underlying musical discourse are yet to be discovered and, accordingly, their historical evolution remains formally unknown. Here we unveil a number of patterns and metrics characterising the generic usage of primary musical facets such as pitch, timbre, and loudness in contemporary western popular music. Many of these patterns and metrics have been consistently stable for a period of more than fifty years. However, we prove important changes or trends related to the restriction of pitch transitions, the homogenisation of the timbral palette, and the growing loudness levels. This suggests that our perception of the new would be rooted on these changing characteristics. Hence, an old tune could perfectly sound novel and fashionable, provided that it consisted of common harmonic progressions, changed the instrumentation and increased the average loudness.”
The analysis was carried out on information from the Million Song Dataset, “a freely-available collection of audio features and metadata for a million contemporary popular music tracks”. It’s probably safe to assume that if the same amount of data were available from actual concerts, the volume levels would be even higher, the pitch transitions and timbral palette a little more varied, given the freedoms and vagaries of live gigs. Never mind. Let’s assume that the data is completely reliable, the analytic tools beyond reproach, and the conclusions about restricted pitch transitions and timbral homogenisation simply infallible.