The Million Song Dataset - Science Concludes Modern Music Too Loud, All Sounds The Same
    By Hank Campbell | July 30th 2012 06:08 PM | 20 comments | Print | E-mail | Track Comments
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    Crotchety old men seem to have won this argument.

    Modern pop music is too loud and does sound all the same, just like angry old types have been saying for 70 years. 

    A team from Spain analyzed music from a 55 year period, using an archive known as the Million Song Dataset, and found that songs have indeed become both louder and more homogenized in terms of chords and melodies. 

    1955, the first year of their dataset, was the birth of rock and roll and saw the decline of the 'doo wop' chord progression (I-vi-IV-V).  If you know your old songs, mentally compare "Earth Angel" by The Penguins from 1954 with Bill Haley's "Rock Around the Clock" from 1955, which used the I-IV-V progression still common today. The set from 1955 to 2010 had 464,411 tunes and they used dynamical processes on complex networks to make the connections and find the statistical patterns.

    "We found evidence of a progressive homogenization of the musical discourse,"
    Joan Serra, first author of the research and artificial intelligence specialist at the Spanish National Research Council, told Reuters. "In particular, we obtained numerical indicators that the diversity of transitions between note combinations - roughly speaking chords plus melodies - has consistently diminished in the last 50 years."

    And the 'loudness' war you thought has been happening is also not in your mind.  Engineers really have been making it louder, because it sounds newer. I once asked an old recording engineer why some older music (Toto, Asia) still sounded new (assified, but new) while other songs of the period sounded like they were being played through a tube, and he said it was all dynamic range compression.  Engineers discovered music was much 'hotter' the more it was compressed so it went from being a benefit, like in placing a maximum sound level so distortion does not happen or to give an instrument some sustain, to overused for effect and it leaves all the sound flat and just really, really loud.

    Loudness distributions pop music
    (a) Examples of the density values and fits of the loudness variable x. (b) Empiric distribution medians. (c) Dynamic variability, expressed as absolute loudness differences between the first and third quartiles of x, |Q1 − Q3|.

    If you want a similar assault for your eyeballs, watch "Transformers 2", where Michael Bay discovered color theory and that orange and teal are complementary, so when they are placed next to each other they give an image similar 'pop'. He then used it as the entire palette for the most difficult movie to watch of the last decade.

    The Mona Lisa in a Michael Bay world. See how it pops?  It also looks terrible. Credit: Todd Miro

    Citation: Joan Serrà, Álvaro Corral, Marián Boguñá, Martín Haro&Josep Ll. Arcos, 'Measuring the Evolution of Contemporary Western Popular Music', Scientific Reports 2, Article number: 521 doi:10.1038/srep00521 (free to read)


    Frank Parks
    Confirmation bias ++ Fond memories of the circular three-chord rock.
    Your fond memories are what they are saying are too loud and too bland!  :)
    Frank Parks
    Yup. Too old, too bland, and too loud.

    Speaking of circular, which I did, I distinctly remember being told that listening to that awful rock and roll would poison my mind and I would spend eternity in HELL.

    Perhaps the last ten years or so of popular music is my punishment. It may not equate to eternity, but it seems like it sometimes.

    Gerhard Adam
    Obviously they're listening to the wrong music.  We went from basic Rock'n'Roll to some seriously well-written songs, to disco to heavy metal, etc. etc. etc.

    All along the way there was good music, there was popular music, and there was crap.  We went the route of guitar virtuosos to those barely able to hold the guitar.  We had our periods of acoustic music, the "unplugged" stuff, as well as the reverse.  It don't see how that's ever changed much of anything.

    If anything it seems more indicative of what gets promoted by record companies than anything about the music itself.

    Despite the claims, I am surprised that my hearing [despite standing in front of 300 watt amplifiers for my early career) didn't diminish my hearing, but everyone I know that listens to country-western is hard of hearing.

    Go figure.
    Mundus vult decipi
    Frank Parks
    If anything it seems more indicative of what gets promoted by record companies than anything about the music itself.

    Actually, payolla worked fine for a while.

    Only slightly off topic: I’ve often wondered why the classical orchestra compositions were confined to a limited time frame.

    A few hundred years is not limited. Or do you mean Classical as opposed to the more colloquial 'classical' (orchestra/symphony) music?
    Frank Parks
    Sorry. Not clear at all. I was daydreaming of the music of Bach, Mozart, Beethoven, Strauss, Wagner, et al. That era seemed to come to an end about 1900 or so.
    Gerhard Adam
    Actually there are a lot more modern day composers, but often they are not recognized as such.  One well known composer was Leonard Bernstein.  George Gershwin was another.  Others like Edgard Varese would be less well-known but just as relevant.
    Mundus vult decipi
    Frank Parks
    If I had done a simple search I could have saved myself a little red face. I see that Strauss, Sabelius, and Ravel were active after 1900.

    Yes, Bernstein and Gershwin both. Verese I will have to investigate.

    The classic period was 1750-1820. As a baroque guy, I get snooty that classical gets to be the blanket term. :)

    You're right that it is out of vogue, though.  But music has cycles.  Paul McCartney wrote a symphony, for example, and it sold out, but it didn't make a Pop top 100 list a few years back.  However, that "Fifth of Beethoven" piece in the 1970s did.

    What rock musician isn't ripping off Tchaikovsky? Yngwie Malmsteen is a 'heavy metal' guitarist but clearly just plays classical music too fast. It's still around - there would be no movies without an orchestra - it's just hidden.
    Gerhard Adam
    Hmm .. I thought the classic period was from 1964 - 1970 (the Beatles) and then 1978 marked the beginning of the Renaissance (Van Halen).  I also remember something about a musical dark ages (Disco).

    After that, it gets a bit fuzzy.
    Mundus vult decipi
    Frank Parks
    And I had you figured for a Bossa Nova/Samba dude.

    When things start getting fuzzy you should lay off of those mushrooms growing back of the outhouse.

    lol @ Van Halen.
    Frank Parks
    Some of my favorites came a little after the baroque stuff.  I'm particularly fond of the Edvard Grieg treatment in the (original) Peer Gynt suite.  Although I like some of the later stuff as well.  Like, say Ravel's Bolero.  My hair stands on end with a good system blaring out 'The Ride of the Valkyries'.  Well the whole thing that Wagner did in Der Ring des Nibelungen is some seriously good stuff.

    Makes me want to fire up the turntable and spin some 78's.  :-)
    Gerhard Adam
    Varese is significant because that was the composer that Frank Zappa actually admired and you can hear a lot of the influence there.  Similarly, pieces like 200 Motels actually are orchestral music.

    "The present day composer refuses to die"  Edgard Varese, 1921
    Mundus vult decipi
    Frank Parks
    Thanks.  I'll check him out.
    I wonder if Andrew Lloyd Webber is considered pop in this research? Also, such pop-culture staples as soundtracks - Lawrence of Arabia, Romeo & Julliet, Godfather, Good, Bad & Ugly, Love Story? And such bands as Pink Foyd, King Crimson and Procol Harum? On the other hand, did they include loud and simplistic folk music in the pre-50-ies sample? Some of them old English, Irish and country-an-western tunes can do even the toughest metalhead's ears in...

    Their paper is free to read, no subscription needed, so you can see their methodology in the paper.
    This paper ignores EDM(electronic dance music). More extreme variations such as Neurofunk have almost done away with chord progressions. Rather they make rather intimidating sound scapes with sounds they sample around them and they use over compression as an expression, not just a matter of getting the sound louder. 3 examples from the same genre:

    The dirty and technical. Sounds are usually samples. This artists is known for using an old vibrator on anything in the house, sample that, and make these basslines with it. What chord progressions? its all noise. wonderful harmonic, noise.

    The musical. Overcompression as its own expression instead of just being a matter of loudness war. These lads embraced it and ran with it in their sound;

    The intimid.....fucking scary. Use of super sterio on the top end of the bass. Appears simple but in terms of production is very advanced.

    Music has changed. The rules has changed with the coming of home computers and affordable prices. There are more top quality producers now than ever before and they are so good that their "pre-mix" material is the "pre-master" of 10 years ago. They play not just with "music" but with "sound". Compression, heavy limiting, absolutely rotten use of distortion and FX chains is all just colors on the palette now. Not reserved for the final mixdown and master.

    Excellent points, their dataset had all popular songs but there would also be no basis for comparison. The cost was a barrier to garage music, no one was buying or even getting a home mix from a Korg 20 years ago because it didn't distribute easily.  I also think mashes change the game quite a bit, but again they are not mainstream enough.

    Overcompression certainly can be a feature - if someone wants to be in a trance and just vary slightly, sharp changes would be a detriment. But for people not in that mindset, it turns a 4 minutes song into a really long one.  That's why I made the Michael Bay comparison; when he is not getting too clever, he makes good movies, otherwise his movies feel like an eternity and they cause memory loss, since they are so painful I can't remember what happened.

    Good comment.
    Thanks :) I can testify to how expensive it was to get into making EDM when it was called "techno".

    My problem with these kinds of papers is that they ignore the larger picture. The mainstream is a hollow reflection of some real sonic alchemy happening all around it. It has always been like that from since there was a "music industry". From the times of delta blues its been like that.

    When music contain lesser notes today it is because the alchemists whom influence the mainstream is to a lesser degree thinking in playing "notes" on an instrument but rather think in creating "sound". We can now make sounds nobody just 15 years could ever have dreamed of, why wouldn't we explore these new options to expand on what music is?

    Right now a mutation of neurofunk called "dubtstep" is all the rave and its influence is starting to resonate in the mainstream. If you count the amount of notes or chords played as an indicator of quality or how advanced it is, you are really missing the point. Depstep like Neurofunk is a sonic attack, there are so many (considered and arranged) frequencies, harmonies going on that to the untrained ear it sounds like a washing machine fighting an old matrix printer. But make no mistake, this is very advanced music even if there is not a barrage of notes or chords played.

    So I do not understand the point of the paper at all.