Music mashes together. But we knew that.

Popular music has gotten less diverse, but makes up for it by being louder

Michael Fitzgerald By Michael Fitzgerald

Justin Bieber, performing in July 2012, has the formula down. (Reuters/Mario Anzuoni)

For all their vaunted advances, science and technology often just confirm what we already know.

That’s the case in a new scientific study of Western pop music, in which Spanish researchers found that over the last 50 years popular music has become louder and more homogenous. Predictably, story after story about the study started out with some variation on the theme of old people complaining that music today is too loud and all sounds the same.

That might seem weird in a day when cultures are blending as part of globalization. Here in the United States, Latin, reggae and African music all influence popular songs.

But the research, boiled down, says most popular music uses the same three chords (this Economist piece on the study noted that almost all music derives from 10 chords). Making those chords sound different is the main thing that makes music seem new.

Or, as the researchers put it in their paper:

Each of us has a perception of what is new and what is not in popular music. According to our findings, this perception should be largely rooted on the simplicity of pitch sequences, the usage of relatively novel timbral mixtures that are in agreement with the current tendencies, and the exploitation of modern recording techniques that allow for louder volumes. This brings us to conjecture that an old popular music piece would be perceived as novel by essentially following these guidelines. In fact, it is informally known that a ‘safe’ way for contemporizing popular music tracks is to record a new version of an existing piece with current means, but without altering the main ‘semantics’ of the discourse.

Lots of one-hit wonder musicians would argue that the formula is harder than it sounds.

And, as The Daily Mail’s Fiona MacRae reports, the study’s data also reflect changes in what we want from music. She quotes one of the researchers, Martin Haro, of Barcelona’s Pompeu Fabra University:

In the 1950s and 60s, music was more artistic and for getting messages, things about politics, across.

When the synthesiser was introduced, you had lots of bands like Pink Floyd that were experimenting with different types of sound and chords, this was an experimental playground for them.

Now it’s about dancing and relaxing, rhythm and energy, with groups and bands not so interested in experimenting with sounds and chords.

Then again, the shift could reflect the rise of hip hop, a genre built on sampling familiar tunes and working in variations on them. In March, The New Yorker published a piece on the artistic and commercial ramifications of this phenomenon.

The researchers argue that as music has become more similar, recording companies make it louder so it can stand out from other songs, in hopes that it will sell more.

Will popular music get ever more similar – and louder? It’s just one study, but anyone who wants to make a living at music will certainly be tempted to view this potential trend as a kind of steroids for their songs.

Musicians and music companies probably already knew about the study’s findings. In this case, the scientists are singing the same old song, with less entertainment value than Australia’s comedy music band The Axis of Awesome: