Music, Sameness and Difference

One of my December rituals since the advent of internet radio is to listen to the top songs of the year. Each year I am disappointed more than the last. Surely, I think, these songs are simply terrible. They all sound the same! They’re all uniformly loud and obnoxious! Get off my lawn! My colleague teased me that it was simply a sign of growing older: all non-young people are appalled by music young people prefer.

But now I have data.

I present to you this fantastic article recently published in Scientific Reports: Measuring the Evolution of Contemporary Western Popular Music. Though ironically framed as advice to music producers, the authors used interesting statistical tools to analyze 500,000 pieces of popular music from 1955 to 2010. That is not a typo – half a million pop music recordings. Their findings are depressing, though not surprising. They analyzed three different attributes of each recording: pitch variations (the tune), timbre variation (the sound of the instruments), and dynamics (changes in loud and soft passages). In each category, there is clear evolution (or is that de-volution?) toward less variation in the melody, more uniform sounding instrumentation, and ever-louder, flatter dynamics.

That, my friends, is the sweet sound of vindication. Popular music really is becoming more boring, more uniform, more fatiguing to hear. But why? I suspect that most of the trends are mere accommodations to the target audience. Without flat, loud dynamics the listener would have to constantly adjust the volume on his digital player. Music, now being used for mood (advertising, last five minutes of dramatic TV programs, background sounds for walking – usually with only one earphone) shouldn’t call too much attention to itself. Since it is unlikely that a listener will sit down a listen to an album, letting the artist set a standard for uniformity across the work, the uniformity has to come from the collective music production establishment instead. Monotone choruses (which are now even invading Country music) make it easier for drunk people to sing along. Many praise choruses seem to me to be written for people not good at remembering which song they’re singing.

So we shouldn’t be upset at the music that is produced. It matches our lives almost perfectly. Often I ask the students with a single white earbud sitting in one ear (while the other one dangles uselessly), “What are you listening to?” Often they have to take a second or two to realize that they’re listening to anything at all, and then another few seconds to identify what it is. Melodic complexity, timbre variation, and rich dynamics would make the music less useful for such a listening pattern.

Fortunately, we are living in a golden age for music production. It is easier than ever to make music and find an audience that wishes to hear it. The internet has revolutionized finding music (not just copying it, as its reputation might suggest). Is music still being produced for people who want to devote an evening to listening to an auditory feast? I give you exhibit A, what I thought was the finest music released last year:

Opeth’s album Heritage.

If there’s one thing this album is, it is unfamiliar to the ear. Even though this band has experimented with dynamic and melodic complexity for years, it is this album, their tenth, where all their experimentation comes together. Their previous albums have remained close to a modified heavy metal formula – loud and soft punctuated by virtuoso drumming, screaming, the typical faire executed very well. This one is structured more like a jazz album. Lyrics are sung with a clear tenor, the guitars have little distortion, drums are mic’d so that you get a sense of the recording space (rather than hearing each drum head as a separate element). It is a true audiophile album in that you can hear the instruments as they are, but also can almost feel the pulse of the human hands that coax music from inanimate objects.

The music itself is relentlessly dissonant, but in a not unpleasant way. It doesn’t sound like an assault on the listener’s taste, but rather as if all the notes in the scale suddenly developed amnesia. They recognize each other, but forget their relationships. Instead of relying on a long tradition of being ordered in particular ways, they have to make due without their histories. The result is music that makes surprising transitions, often tentatively trying out a melodic sequence in one song before committing to it in the following. It is rock, jazz, and heavy metal – but without consciously trying to fuse these genres. The album rewards multiple listening sessions, revealing itself only when the familiarity of memory overcomes the unfamiliarity of its tonal structure.

The lyrics are less propositions than they are juxtapositions, loosely revolving around the seven deadly sins, and our own guilt, complacency, and outrage connected to them. I listen to these songs of alienation and despair while the musical notes, being made strangers to each other, swirl defiantly and energetically. Each note played with passion and care by veteran touring musicians, making sound both beautiful and ugly – full of doubt and yet ennobling.

Statistics to the contrary, we live in a golden age of recorded music. We also live in an age of terrible music being popular. How sad that even when offered feasts most people are content with scraps.

3 responses

  1. I think it’s only appropriate to quote Porcupine Tree in an Opeth apologetic mixed with a “this is why music sucks” explanation.

    “One of the wonders of the world is going down, it’s going down, I know. It’s one of the blunders of the world, but no one cares, no one cares enough.”

    • Chris, “this is why music sucks” is exactly the opposite of my contention. The music being produced now is EXACTLY tailored to the needs of the listener. For some, it is something to belt out in the car. For others, pleasing background sounds in only one ear. For people like me, really interesting, challenging music. It truly is a golden age.

      For an album like “Heritage,” instant, universal popularity wasn’t the goal. But it was made, and probably was profitable. Now the bar has been raised, and I’m a happy listener!

      EDIT: Just to clarify. Slacker Radio’s top 50 for 2012 was full of terrible music, when considered AS music. When considered as a playlist to a party, or simple background noise, it suffices.

  2. Interesting. I don’t profess to really know anything about anything. But what you wrote kind-of-sort-of made sense. I think of it as..listening to what seems or is familiar to a time past and long gone. I never wanted to be a creature of habit, but as I get older, I find out, it is what it is…habit forming in life –sometimes called the “hardening of the arteries” where we have a harder time adapting to changes. Music is like that. I found out quickly for young people, how knew and cool “Frank Sinatra” or “Dean Martin” is and they should have done an cut with Eminem (but I keep asking myself–where is Skittles in a this.) For passion sake when Kid Rock paired up with Jerry Lee Lewis, everyone went wild especially when Willie was added to the equation. But I suppose to each his own..but I am still trying to figure out what happened to Skittles?

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