Many Canadians of a certain age will have drawn great comfort from news reports about a team of Spanish scientists who have proved that modern pop music really does all sounds the same (and elsewhere). The Reuters news story describes a study of pop songs from 1955 to 2010, analyzing melody, instrumental timbre, and loudness, and concluding that music has become blander and more homogeneous during the past sixty years.
While this story may have inspired glee in Hendrix fans and gloom in their Skrillex-listening offspring, it also caused a lot of exasperated sighs among professional music scholars. Members of IASPM-Canada (the Canadian branch of the International Association for the Study of Popular Music) question the value of a nationally-funded (admittedly by Spanish taxpayers, not Canadian ones!) study that seems simply to proclaim “music was better when we were young.”
In our email conversation over the last few days, we also wonder about the reliability of the findings, given that the algorithms included only melody and instrument sound. It’s a bit like comparing sentence structure and word choice in recent fiction: sure, Zadie Smith and EL James might use adverbs in similar ways, but would that really tell us anything useful about their work?
Furthermore, Adam Krims (Professor of Music Analysis, University of Nottingham) points out “potential problems in the study on its own terms: for instance, what is being defined as a ‘chord,’ and how is differentiation being measured?” Is it really true that Lady Gaga and Diana Krall sound the same, since both play the piano and they have approximately the same vocal range? Can listeners hear no difference between Justin Bieber and Jack White? Have genres such as hip hop, electronic dance music, and metal truly had no discernible impact on the sounds of mainstream pop?
Like any scientific study, this one has produced results that are determined by the tools and methods used. Lori Burns (Professor of Music, University of Ottawa) notes that “scientists necessarily constrain their research parameters, asking very limited questions about a restricted sample so that they can make finite conclusions using the potential of their computer programs … they were certainly not thinking about the advances in production and technology and I cannot imagine that their computer programs could produce analytic results for hip hop or dub step!” By choosing melody as the crucial parameter and ignoring rhythm altogether, for example, the scientists fail to identify a great deal of what makes music powerful.
Nevertheless, Serge Lacasse (Associate professor of music, l’Université Laval) cautions us not to assume that innovation, variety and evolution are always of utmost importance to music, and he wonders why this should be the “basis of any sort of evaluation of popular music (or another music for that matter).” To be fair, this responds to a problem less with the Spanish study itself, which does not offer any value judgements, and more with the smug headlines attached to the news report in various media: “Pop music too loud and all sounds the same: official” (Reuters) and “Pop Music All Sounds the Same Nowadays” (Yahoo! News).
Because of course, listeners in some settings do prefer music that sounds predictable. Referring to the playlist of a radio station that identifies itself as “your music at work,” Jody Berland (Professor of Humanities, York University) describes “singing within a 13-14 note range, with the men all singing in the same range as the women. The range of sonic expression is extremely narrow and about 80% of the songs are confined to two or three musical keys.” The function of this kind of music is to provide a suitable backdrop for a certain kind of workspace, and the radio programmers will carefully avoid disruptive sounds and styles. In this way, the demands of the music industry lead to homogenized product, which might sometimes be at odds with the artists’ intents. Listeners use and value music in different ways, depending on many factors. Susan Fast (Professor of English & Cultural Studies, McMaster University) reminds us that “music is listened to by people with diverse histories, often based on gender, sexuality, age, class, race and ethnicity, to name a few, and who gravitate to certain musics, at certain times, for particular reasons. These social contexts and others have to be taken into account and in studies such as these, they are not.”
But the appeal of this kind of scientific study is that it promises conclusive proof and definite answers (as well as furnishing a few glib newspaper articles). That kind of neat analysis is difficult to produce when we have to deal with humans and their messy lives — the kind of work that scholars in the arts and humanities undertake. There is no real need for conflict between these scholarly approaches, but research with “quantifiable” results is often valued more highly (not least in terms of funding dollars) and Dana Baitz (independent scholar and musician) points out that “the reception of this study — the way newspaper editors position the findings — redoubles the sense of scientific superiority over the arts.” Eric Smialek (PhD candidate in musicology, McGill University) notes the “valorization of research that affirms what a large segment of the population already believes, rather than research that problematizes, destabilizes, or changes conventional ways of thinking.”
Thus, a frankly frivolous study offering conclusions about music based on scientific methods is paid for by the Spanish National Research Council, even when it does not try to address the ways in which people listen to music, why certain songs catch a collective audience in a particular moment, why musicians make songs at all. The richness of popular music stems largely from the creativity of individual performance, which involves varying timbre, rhythm, phrasing and more, with various tools and technologies, and within the context of genre conventions and listener expectations. The best studies of music and its crucial role in our lives address the notes and much more.
Associate Professor of Music