Top Scientists: Pop Music is Getting Worse

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Top Scientists: Pop Music is Getting Worse

Postby AJOwens » Tue Jan 16, 2018 5:33 am

This BBC story came to me via Slashdot, so I'll link to Slashdot.
https://science.slashdot.org/story/18/0 ... repetitive
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Re: Top Scientists: Pop Music is Getting Worse

Postby Lunkhead » Tue Jan 16, 2018 9:35 am

That is really sad. My "old man" opinion is that MTV put pop music on a bad path to cementing image over music. Digital production techniques made it all too easy to pour autotune and brickwall limiting etc. all over everything. (Similar to how so many movies get digitally color graded to be mostly blue and orange.) Then the singing reality competition shows took things down another big notch. And if I had to be a grouchy grandpa even more I think also early 90s hip-hop, that was almost entirely focused on bitches and hos and money, put pop music on another trend toward purely being more and more about debased nihilistic materialism. /rant
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Re: Top Scientists: Pop Music is Getting Worse

Postby MicahSommer » Tue Jan 16, 2018 12:29 pm

Ah yes, the old “science proves that pop music is garbage” claim. And now five for the price of one!
I checked out the BBC link (https://www.bbc.co.uk/music/articles/fb ... 3e8a083334) and strap in because I have some thoughts (or feel free to ignore this entire post).

1. Slower and sadder
Pop songs now have slower tempos on average and are more likely to be in minor keys. I guess those are objective facts, but so what? The argument is that pop music on the whole is less fun than it used to be. But it's not like if you want to listen to music, you have to take the entirety of pop at once. If you go to the club, the DJ will play upbeat dance tracks. If you are working out, you can find a Pandora station specifically to work out to. And of course, the idea that minor key = sad is of course hilariously simplistic, as anyone who has listened to any Eastern European music, klezmer, tango, Middle Eastern music, etc, can attest. I just heard "Jumpin', Jumpin'" by Destiny's Child on pop radio yesterday, and guess what? It's in a minor key and it's a ton of fun. Finally, the BBC article quotes the study as describing "a progressive increase of mixed emotional cues in popular music" - really, we're arguing that increased emotional complexity is a bad thing?

2. Simpler and louder
I see this Spanish study get cited a lot in online arguments about the decline of pop music and I still don't like it. Their thesis is basically that newer music has less variation in pitch and timbre, and is louder than music of the past (they go back to 1955). Here's the paper itself - https://www.nature.com/articles/srep00521
I find their analysis somewhat dodgy, as they don't distinguish between melody and harmony and completely ignore rhythm. Here's a pretty good response from a musicologist to the paper - http://thequietus.com/articles/10904-sc ... music-flaw
Also, they find that absolute loudness has increased, but NOT that variation in loudness within songs has decreased.

3. Antisocial and angry
From the BBC article: "They found that the use of the first-person singular pronouns (the word 'I') has increased steadily over time, suggesting that fans have become more interested in reflective first-person songs. This matches a decline in words that emphasis community and working together. They also noted a rise in antisocial and angry words, suggesting that pop hits are reflecting a growing sense of personal fury and social unrest."
This reminds me of when conservative critics were obsessed with how many times Obama used first person pronouns in his speeches, which apparently proved what a narcissist he was. Also, this study only looked at the top 10 songs from each year between 1980 and 2007, which is not a huge dataset. Also also, if pop hits do in fact reflect "a growing sense of personal fury and social unrest", that's hardly the fault of the music itself, is it?

4. just not as good as it used to be
So all age groups polled say that now is the worst period in pop music. I'm guessing that 1) old people are nostalgic for their youth and don't like new things, which is a regular thing and nothing new; 2) younger people are constantly barraged with, and have internalized, the message, from articles like this one, that their music is terrible; and 3) we're comparing all of today's pop music to the best music of the past - the garbage gets forgotten.

5. More repetitive lyrics
Handel's "Messiah" was written in 1741 and is generally regarded among the greatest musical achievements in history. A complete performance takes about 3 hours, and you can read through the entire text in about five minutes. Repetition is a thing that has been around for a very long time. It's an integral part of how music creates meaning, and not a sign of laziness. Yeesh.

Of course, the real issue with all these "scientific" studies "proving" that music is awful now is that they ignore any kind of social/economic analysis and treat "music" as a huge monolithic entity. For instance, it's easy to record and disseminate music on your own now (cf. Song Fight), whereas sixty years ago, if you wanted to make a record, you needed a record deal. On the other hand, if you did make an attempt to make it as a professional, you probably had better chances of success (i.e. making a living) then than you do now. (Disclaimer: I'm not a music historian. I'm sure this is a huge generalization.) As the pop music industry tightens around a smaller and smaller group of stars, amateur/hobbyist musicians like us get left out - and get left out of these analyses - even though there are more and more of us. This is a business/economic issue, not something inherent to music itself, yet articles like these treat it as a hopeless case. Maybe pop music today really is garbage, but there's never given any idea of what to do about - Support local/independent musicians? Buy music instead of streaming? Become a musician yourself? NO! Just keep on complaining and fetishizing the past!
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Re: Top Scientists: Pop Music is Getting Worse

Postby Lunkhead » Tue Jan 16, 2018 2:37 pm

MicahSommer wrote:2. Simpler and louder
I see this Spanish study get cited a lot in online arguments about the decline of pop music and I still don't like it. Their thesis is basically that newer music has less variation in pitch and timbre, and is louder than music of the past (they go back to 1955). Here's the paper itself - https://www.nature.com/articles/srep00521
I find their analysis somewhat dodgy, as they don't distinguish between melody and harmony and completely ignore rhythm. Here's a pretty good response from a musicologist to the paper - http://thequietus.com/articles/10904-sc ... music-flaw
Also, they find that absolute loudness has increased, but NOT that variation in loudness within songs has decreased.


I thought technically you couldn't actually increase the real loudness beyond a certain amount (e.g. the output of your audio file is 0db the entire time). You can increase the "apparent" loudness up toward that real ceiling though, I thought, which is what has been happening. And the way to do that is to bring up the floor, which effectively DOES decrease the dynamic variation. Look at the example image on this page, you'll see that as more and more of the waveform is pressed up to 0db there is less variation:

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Loudness_war

I thought that was the whole argument against the loudness war, not that things being loud is inherently bad but that the side effect is decreased dynamic range and the resulting fatigue from listening to a lot of music that has been processed that way.
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Re: Top Scientists: Pop Music is Getting Worse

Postby Lunkhead » Tue Jan 16, 2018 2:45 pm

MicahSommer wrote:Of course, the real issue with all these "scientific" studies "proving" that music is awful now is that they ignore any kind of social/economic analysis and treat "music" as a huge monolithic entity. For instance, it's easy to record and disseminate music on your own now (cf. Song Fight), whereas sixty years ago, if you wanted to make a record, you needed a record deal. On the other hand, if you did make an attempt to make it as a professional, you probably had better chances of success (i.e. making a living) then than you do now. (Disclaimer: I'm not a music historian. I'm sure this is a huge generalization.) As the pop music industry tightens around a smaller and smaller group of stars, amateur/hobbyist musicians like us get left out - and get left out of these analyses - even though there are more and more of us. This is a business/economic issue, not something inherent to music itself, yet articles like these treat it as a hopeless case. Maybe pop music today really is garbage, but there's never given any idea of what to do about - Support local/independent musicians? Buy music instead of streaming? Become a musician yourself? NO! Just keep on complaining and fetishizing the past!


I think though that they are limiting the scope to "pop music" which IS just the top 10 Billboard chart type stuff. It's not about ALL music or ALL non-classical/non-jazz/etc. music. None of us are making "pop music" in the sense of "pop culture" even if any of us are working in the musical genre of "pop". So it's possible that both their argument about that specific music is valid and that plenty of people are listening to "alternative" music born of the trends you've pointed out about production and distribution technologies.

IMHO this kind of analysis may have an intention of trying to educate people that they're being given a garbage product from a lazy industry, and calling out the industry for churning out garbage.
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Re: Top Scientists: Pop Music is Getting Worse

Postby MicahSommer » Tue Jan 16, 2018 4:17 pm

Lunkhead wrote:I thought technically you couldn't actually increase the real loudness beyond a certain amount (e.g. the output of your audio file is 0db the entire time). You can increase the "apparent" loudness up toward that real ceiling though, I thought, which is what has been happening. And the way to do that is to bring up the floor, which effectively DOES decrease the dynamic variation. Look at the example image on this page, you'll see that as more and more of the waveform is pressed up to 0db there is less variation:

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Loudness_war

I thought that was the whole argument against the loudness war, not that things being loud is inherently bad but that the side effect is decreased dynamic range and the resulting fatigue from listening to a lot of music that has been processed that way.

That's my general understanding of the issue as well. But that's not what this study (which, again, I don't think is a good study) claims. Here's the relevant quote:

"The empiric median of the loudness values x grows from −22 dBFS to −13 dBFS (Fig. 4b), with a least squares linear regression yielding a slope of 0.13 dB/year (p < 0.01, t-test). In contrast, the absolute difference between the first and third quartiles of x remains constant around 9.5 dB (Fig. 4c), with a regression slope that is not statistically significant (p > 0.05, t-test). This shows that, although music recordings become louder, their absolute dynamic variability has been conserved, understanding dynamic variability as the range between higher and lower loudness passages of a recording. However, and perhaps most importantly, one should notice that digital media cannot output signals over 0 dBFS, which severely restricts the possibilities for maintaining the dynamic variability if the median continues to grow." (italics mine)

Obviously, though, compression is useful. Has it been taken too far? Probably. But on the other hand, I like classical music but I can't listen to classical CDs in my car because they usually have little to no compression. One minute I can't hear the pianissimo strings over the road noise, and the next I'm deafened when the brass comes in.
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