WASHINGTON — According to a new study from researchers at the Spanish National Research Council, the familiar complaint that contemporary popular music has grown loud, predictable and simpler than ever may be exactly right. While we often cast a skeptical eye toward quantitative studies of music like this one, a closer examination of the paper reveals that even for skeptics the analysis may have a point — even if the portrait it paints is incomplete.
Here's how the study worked. The analysts ran 464,411 recordings from all genres of popular music from the period of 1955-2010 (called the "Million Song Dataset") through a complex set of algorithms to analyze three metrics: harmonic complexity, timbral diversity and loudness. The results indicated that, on the whole, popular music over the past half-century has become blander and louder than it used to be.
To understand these findings, it's worth briefly delving into the terms in question. Most people are familiar with the idea that popular songs are constructed chiefly of a melody (usually the lead vocal line or tune) and supporting harmonies called chords (rhythm is the other chief component, but more on that later). The study found that, since the '50s, there has been a decrease not only in the diversity of chords in a given song, but also in the number of novel transitions, or musical pathways, between them. In other words, while it's true that pop songs have always been far more limited in their harmonic vocabularies than, say, a classical symphony, past decades saw more inventive ways of linking their harmonies together than we hear now. It's the difference between Carly Rae Jepsen's "Call Me Maybe" (2012), which contains four simple chords presented one after another almost as blocks, and Alex North's "Unchained Melody" (1955), which, though also relatively harmonically simple (it employs about six or seven chords, depending on the version), transitions smoothly from chord to chord due to more subtle orchestration.