Every generation likes to complain about how musical creativity peaked “when we were young” and has died a slow death ever since, but according to a new computer algorithm, we’re all wrong. Mainstream music in the US has actually remained stylistically diverse over the past 50 years, with the exception of one decade: the 1980s.
Anyone who’s listened to enough synth pop could probably have told you that, but computer scientists from the UK have developed an algorithm that tracks broad trends in music over the past 50 years, and has pinpointed where originality was its strongest... and weakest.
To do this, the algorithm looked at nearly every song on Billboard’s Hot-100 list dating back to the 1960s, and scanned each for its harmony and timbre (pronounced "tamber"), which describes the character and 'sound' of the music, rather than just the progression of the notes.
This allowed the researchers to build: “a fossil record of pop music, defined by when certain chords and timbre styles became fashionable or disappeared from our cultural consciousness,” as Nsikan Akpan reports for PBS.
Publishing their results in The Royal Society Open Science, the authors explain that the evolution of pop music reflects Charles Darwin's theory of evolution in that it isn’t consistent, but instead leaps forwards during short periods of rapid change.
“The work is far and away the most comprehensive and sophisticated analysis yet of popular music,” Mark Pagel, an evolutionary biologist from the University of Reading in the UK, who wasn’t involved in the study, told Akpan. “Many commentators attempt to link eras of pop music to social and political changes, but this program does not rely on preconceptions. Rather it allows patterns to emerge from [musical] data.”
The scientists also identified the three most stylistically revolutionary years in music over the past half a century: 1964, 1983 and 1993.
Out of these, 1964 triggered the most complex and diverse styles, influencing both soul and rock before spawning funk and disco. And contrary to popular opinion, it wasn’t the British invasion of the Beatles and the Rolling Stones that started the revolution, these bands simply brought the trend to the masses.
In 1983, it was aggressive synthesised percussion that came onto the scene and revolutionised pop music, becoming so popular that the decade was the least stylistically diverse. This doesn’t mean that music from the’80s was bad, simply that a very small number of musical styles dominated the charts.
So what pulled the music industry from its 80s synth rut? “Rap and hip-hop saved the charts from being too bland,” said Mauch.
Although it all sounds like a lot of fun, the algorithm could also be used to track other social and cultural trends throughout time. And it'll also help silence all those haters of Miley and Taylor out there.
“These findings will disappoint social critics who blame pop music for a generalised decline of culture,” Pagel told Akpan over at PBS. “These results suggest there is no danger that musical styles have exhausted all of the possibilities or that we are in any danger of running out of new music.”
For much more information on how music has changed over the past 50 years, read the article over at PBS.