Different artists, same sounds: is our modern music losing originality?

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The next time your grandmother complains about how modern music all sounds the same, you should be hard-pressed to argue with her. She is now, officially, correct. Researchers at the Spanish National Research Council, led by artificial intelligence expert Joan Serrà, have used an archive known as the Million Song Dataset to analyse pop, rock, electronic, metal and hip-hop music from 1955 to 2010. The team discovered that music over the period has gradually lost diversity in terms of chords, melodies and note combinations as well as become louder, and resulted in what they’ve termed “the homogenisation of the timbral palette”. Timbre is essentially the characteristics of sound which allow the human ear to distinguish sounds which have the same pitch and loudness. Simply put, the same note played on a guitar and a piano is easily distinguishable to the ear – they have a different timbre.

Serrà continues to say that modern music’s melodies have become more and more similar, that the numerical indicators they’ve acquired show that the “the diversity of transitions between note combinations – roughly speaking chords plus melodies – has consistently diminished in the last 50 years”. Whereas in the 50s and 60s you’d be likely to hear a variety of (often unusual) instruments and note combinations in popular songs, in the last few decades, the unusual is frequently discarded for the fashionable.

The limited variety of sounds present in pop music is attributed in part to digital processing and synthesising. As mentioned, the timbre of a guitar is different to the timbre of a piano, but through digital processing, often the instruments begin to lose some of their characteristic tone, making the variety of sounds far more limited. The combination of a lack of instrumental variety and the increasing similarity of tones through processing, results in this uniformity of sound.

There have also long been accusations that the music industry is engaged in a “loudness war”, a disparaging term for an apparent competition to see who can produce the loudest recordings. Well, this claim has also been proven by the team, who measured the integrated loudness of recordings to discover that music today is indeed literally louder than several decades ago, to the point where softly recorded music is interpreted as old-fashioned.

For those discouraged by this apparent diminishing of creativity, music psychologists offer comfort in the prediction that, as artists continue to compete for listeners, innovation in music is inevitable. This also isn’t to say that all music produced nowadays follows this trend, as the study certainly had limits, analysing a collection of chart hits rather than samples from across all genres and levels of popularity. But for those of you who can’t tell your Katy Perry’s from your Rihanna’s, you can take comfort in the fact that science is on your side.

 

Illustrator: Monica Burns

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