Most debates about pop music may be entirely subjective, but Matthias Mauch, an engineer at Queen Mary University of London, decided to take a more scientific approach to the subject. He and a team of colleagues put 17,000 songs spanning 50 years of the Billboard 100 list through data-mining software to generate a quantitative data set about the evolution of what’s topping the charts.
The computer took songs (the label of “pop” is more about popularity than genre) from 1960 to 2010 and measured things like harmony and timbre. The results, published in the Royal Society Open Science journal, prove that it simply isn’t true that all mass music sounds the same.
One major finding: Music in the ‘80s was a snooze! That decade was the least diverse of any time period in the last half-century.
After Mauch and his team measured harmony, timbre, and chord changes, the researchers built a “fossil record” that tracked when particular stylings were more or less prominent. With that data, the team was able to see the decline of the dominant 7th chords as jazz and blues faded from the mainstream. In turn, the minor seventh chords found a place with the dawn of the disco era.
The team was also able to spot three musical revolutions in 1964, 1983, and 1991. These years marked large shifts in the pop music world where styles changed quickly. It’s pretty remarkable that a set of data would reflect the changes of what was in vogue from decade to decade, but the revolutions in the data make total sense. The British Invasion stormed pop music in 1964, while 1983 ushered in the era of new technology and synthesizers, and in 1991, rap and hip-hop started to take over. The last shift was the largest, according to Mauch, in part because rap and hip-hop are genres with very few harmonies.
There’s also some great news for those who are tired of hearing people say that all modern pop music sounds the same: Science disagrees. According to the data, today’s pop is just as diverse as ever. So if you must hate on something, you can hate the ‘80s, though my New Order t-shirt and I will just keep dancing over here.