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While tastes in music vary widely from one generation to the next, with each complaining about the unsuitability, volume, or subject matter of the others’ favorite tunes, our suspicion that the overall quality and originality of modern pop music is declining rapidly is now supported by science.

In Measuring the Evolution of Contemporary Western Popular Music, a study conducted by Joan Serra at the Artificial Intelligence Research Institute in Barcelona, we see hard evidence that music offers less diversity and more volume than in years past.

In fact, fans of the genre experience roughly the same ten chords, a decrease in recording technique diversity, narrowing of instrument types, and a near total loss of unusual transitions within the music.

“We prove important changes or trends related to the restriction of pitch transitions, the homogenization of the timbral palette, and the growing loudness levels.”

excerpt from Measuring the Evolution of Contemporary Western Popular Music

Further study reveals that as the quality of new music degrades, the volume increases. Just fifty years ago, music was 9 decibels softer. The frantic attention grab of radio conglomerates includes an increase in overall volume. At high decibels, digital audio formats reach their maximum capacity and begin to lose dynamic range.

New music is flatter, louder, and less interesting than ever.

The good news is that as the current generation is forced to endure the onslaught of popular music on the radio, in media, during movies, and in social situations, their ability to detect new and interesting music lives on.

In fact, the music “industry” knows that recycling an old tune, or creating a “remake” often breathes life into the homogenous landscape they’ve created.

“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.”

excerpt from Measuring the Evolution of Contemporary Western Popular Music

In another recent study about current trends in pop music, a team of scientists at the Medical University of Vienna in Austria looked closely at 15 genres and 374 subgenres to find various levels of complexity and hunt for trends.

In the Instrumentational Complexity of Music Genres and Why Simplicity Sells study, they detailed how two opposing desires coexist peacefully to create new music that offers uniformity and variety. Not surprisingly, one of the findings was that popular music is a bit on the boring side.

“Album sales of a given style typically increase with decreasing instrumentational complexity. This can be interpreted as music becoming increasingly formulaic in terms of instrumentation once commercial or mainstream success sets in.”

excerpt from Instrumentational Complexity of Music Genres and Why Simplicity Sells, 

The scientists went into detail about some of the problems with modern pop music. No artist was spared in their assessment.

As music becomes popular, the formula becomes clearer and artists seeking approval and radio-play seek to replicate the formula as closely as possible. Musicians with a similar skill set, playing similar instruments, singing songs with similar lyrics flood the market.

Genres who have managed to retain their complexity over time are notoriously low-earners in the music scene. Folk rock, alternative rock, hip-hop, and experimental music all continue to experience declining sales while genres like pop-country are playing in every waiting room, shopping mall, and teenager’s car.

It seems that record companies like to play it safe, promoting music they are sure will please the masses. As two radio companies own the airwaves in the United States, it’s not surprising that the artists they choose to play win big.

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