Does Today’s Music Really All Sound the Same?

In this post, I take a look at some wide reaching claims about popular music and show how the insights of spectralist composers points to why these claims might be misguided.

Photo credit: www.planetofsuccess.com/blog/

At the end of July, a study entitled “Measuring the Evolution of Contemporary Western Popular Music” came out whose findings seem to confirm what many people over the age of thirty from any era think: namely, that popular music sounds all the same.

Below is a smattering of headlines reporting on this study. What is clear is that journalists liked the idea of this claim, but didn’t really care to check on anything themselves. Many only cite the Reuter’s article and don’t link to the publicly accessible original article:

I think you get the point. So what is this study all about? Well, it isn’t asking whether all Nickelback songs sound the same (in this case, the answer is yes they do, at least for the most part).

The study looked at music from a giant database of popular music and created three main arguments for why popular music sounds more the same than it did 50 years ago.

  1. The recordings have a higher degree of loudness
  2. The harmonies are simpler
  3. The timbres are more similar

One of the conclusions essentially says that you too could make a hit so long as you make it simple and loud:

Hence, an old tune with slightly simpler chord progressions, new instrument sonorities that were in agreement with current tendencies, and recorded with modern techniques that allowed for increased loudness levels could be easily perceived as novel, fashionable, and groundbreaking.;

There are so many problems here that it would require a ridiculously long post to deal with them all. Let me briefly get a couple of these out of the way and then go on to what spectralism can show us.

First, journalists confused ‘loudness’ with ‘loud’. The ‘loudness’ of this study has to do with a recording technique. ‘Loud’ is losing your hearing at a concert, which you could have done in the 1970s and you can do today if you please.

Second, for some reason the authors of this study decided that their study can serve as a formula for the popularity of music. While the empirical can provide the basis for speculation, they seem to confuse the empirical with the speculative. There are some problems with the methods used in this study, but one thing it does not take into account is that over the past fifty years new sounds were created had not been heard previously. Additionally, the development of electronics enabled timbre to be explored in much more depth, and this changed the timbral potentials of both art music and popular music.

This leads us to spectralism, a topic I am currently doing research on. The following quotes are from composer Tristan Murail – one of the originating composers of what was later called ‘spectralism’. They are from ‘The Revolution of Complex Sounds’ in Contemporary Music Review, Volume 24, Issue 2–3, 2005, pages 121- 135. The first quote explores ideas of ‘sameness’ in experiencing music:

Fans of rock music provide a good example of this ‘other listening‘. For us (‘serious’ musicians), all rock is terribly alike and monotonous (4/4 time, electric guitars, pentatonic melodies, E minor—because it is easier for the guitarists—etc.). For rock listeners, however, there is no doubt about identity of the band or the song, after hearing only a few seconds. What they are hearing is not what we hear: they listen to the sound before anything else; they see the differences and subtleties that will go unnoticed by the musically educated—and thus compartmentalized and conditioned—ear.

The study we started with makes the assumptions of these ‘serious’ musicians. They assume all E minor chords are the same. And of course they aren’t! Hendrix, Justin Vernon, Bob Dylan, and Van Halen don’t all sound the same when they play an E minor chord. But by using categories inherited from art music analysis – which deals primarily with written music simply because we don’t have recordings of Mozart playing Mozart – this study does not do service to our everyday experience of music.

The other problem is that harmony and timbre is another false inherited categorical division that does not hold up to the science of sound nor our everyday perceptions. Murail again:

acoustic analysis and even simple observation show us that there is no precise line between pitch and noise, rhythm and frequency; harmony and sound colour are continuous phenomena.

It doesn’t take much looking into the physics of sound to find that those things we assume to be a single pitch are made up of multiple pitches. In this way, we could say that a single note’s timbre is harmonic since it is made up of more than one pitch. An example of the blurring of harmony and timbre is Gerard Grisey’s Partiels, which uses a Fourier analysis of the overtones of a trombone as the harmonic and timbral ideas of the composition (more on Fourier analysis next time).

What is very interesting about spectralism is that it provides insight into how we experience music and into the science of sound, and does this through compositional process even more than writing about music. So, does music all sound the same? It depends how you listen.

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