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lazygecko

Study on homogenized pop music

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http://www.reuters.com/article/2012/07/26/us-science-music-idUSBRE86P0R820120726

The original, more in-depth article:
http://www.nature.com/srep/2012/120726/srep00521/full/srep00521.html

Over-compression and the loudness war has already been well documented, what's interesting here is how they've found harmonic and timbral aspects to also become increasingly formulaic across the entire pop spectrum.

For sure, whenever "modern pop is crap" discussions come along, you'll have folks talking about rose-tinted glasses. It's true that older music could also be pretty by-the-numbers and formulaic. One of the first annoying observations I had was how overused the blues 12-bar is in older music (not to mention Doom!). But these tropes were usually confined within their own genres, usually you wouldn't hear classic rock doing the same stuff r&b acts did. The past few years I have really noticed how bubblegum pop, dance, hip hop and r&b have all converged, collectively beating the same dead horse with shared chord progressions and synth presets. The soul, funk and jazz roots have all but disappeared from contemporary urban music which really bothers me.

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Do you think people just forgot how to write music or do they just keep writing the same two chord progressions into pop hits because they're smothered in money?

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Neither. Nobody's forgotten how to make good music at all -- it's the general public's fault for not considering the good stuff popular for whatever reason. :P

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Well, I don't listen to pop music so I really don't have too much to say about this beyond, "Well... duh?" It doesn't seem that hard to figure out that all pop music sounds the same these days once here one of the countless remixes where they manage to get all of the songs in the same track without blinking an eye.

Hopefully they'll start researching something useful, now.

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Snakes said:

Hopefully they'll start researching something useful, now.

Like a renewable energy so-- *giggle* sorry, couldn't keep a straight face.

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Ralphis said:

Do you think people just forgot how to write music or do they just keep writing the same two chord progressions into pop hits because they're smothered in money?

Probably both. I hope mainstream music stops sucking at some point (dunno how likely that'll be, though).

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what gets me is that mot music now has no melody. it's just repeating notes of the same pitch. poker face by lady gaga, and TONS of rihanna's songs have this monotone bullshit in them.

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Csonicgo said:

what gets me is that mot music now has no melody. it's just repeating notes of the same pitch. poker face by lady gaga, and TONS of rihanna's songs have this monotone bullshit in them.


Pretty much all of Lady Gaga's songs are super melodic, as well as Rihanna's (even if most of the melody is her screaming it)

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"modern pop music really is louder" - what does that mean and how does it matter? Every music device I've ever seen has a way to change the volume, so what's the big deal? If I find a loud song, I'll just turn down the volume. Problem officer?

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Memfis said:

"modern pop music really is louder" - what does that mean and how does it matter? Every music device I've ever seen has a way to change the volume, so what's the big deal? If I find a loud song, I'll just turn down the volume. Problem officer?

There's a limit to how much dynamic range (that is, the range from quiet to soft) that you can actually fit in CD-format audio (or similar). Past a certain point, making something sound louder means completely squashing the signal so that there's no variation anymore. It contributes to ear fatigue and generally sounds lifeless (and generally worse) compared to something mixed properly, when the two are adjusted to the same perceived volume.

The fact that everything has a volume control on it, like you say, exemplifies why it's such a pointless thing for music to be mixed this way. You can turn it up. Or down. It's idiotic for the recording's quality to be intentionally compromised solely for the sake of making it sound louder.

See: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Loudness_war

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Memfis said:

"modern pop music really is louder" - what does that mean and how does it matter? Every music device I've ever seen has a way to change the volume, so what's the big deal? If I find a loud song, I'll just turn down the volume. Problem officer?


Kinda like the guy who didn't care about gas price. "What do I care about gas price fluctuations? I always buy $10 of gas, and I will continue to do so".

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All I know is that I find modern mainstream radio unlistenable. I don't even like the majority of older pop music but I can't deny it consisted of a lot of well written songs.

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95% of everything is crap. This is a constant through the age. One thing, though: crap is biodegradable. Wait long enough, and pretty much nothing remains, except in rare cases where it fossilizes and becomes coprolites, but then it makes them historically interesting.

The 5% that isn't crap endures. So when we look at old stuff in any given domain (say, music) we mostly see the 5% that wasn't crap and when we compare to current production we see the 95% that is crap.

Therefore, the comparison immediately says "man, our artists suck now; in the past they had like maybe five musicians but they were all geniuses! Now we have billions of pop stars and there's what, maybe five of them that are actually any good!"

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Gez said:

95% of everything is crap. This is a constant through the age. One thing, though: crap is biodegradable. Wait long enough, and pretty much nothing remains, except in rare cases where it fossilizes and becomes coprolites, but then it makes them historically interesting.

The 5% that isn't crap endures. So when we look at old stuff in any given domain (say, music) we mostly see the 5% that wasn't crap and when we compare to current production we see the 95% that is crap.

Therefore, the comparison immediately says "man, our artists suck now; in the past they had like maybe five musicians but they were all geniuses! Now we have billions of pop stars and there's what, maybe five of them that are actually any good!"


This only true to an extent. I'm sorry, but certain time periods in human history have produced better art than others, period. Sure, there will always be junk no matter when you live, but when you have a population that is more energized to make great art then more great art will emerge. Are you prepared to say that neanderthals from 30,000 years ago had an equal amount of crap to the Italian Renaissance?

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I have 3 Top 40 stations on my car's radio. Come at me, bro.

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Ralphis said:

Pretty much all of Lady Gaga's songs are super melodic, as well as Rihanna's (even if most of the melody is her screaming it)


I walked up to a sack of festering garbage on the street, hit it with a tuning fork and got a Rhianna song..quite amazing.

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esselfortium said:

There's a limit to how much dynamic range (that is, the range from quiet to soft) that you can actually fit in CD-format audio (or similar). Past a certain point, making something sound louder means completely squashing the signal so that there's no variation anymore. It contributes to ear fatigue and generally sounds lifeless (and generally worse) compared to something mixed properly, when the two are adjusted to the same perceived volume.

The fact that everything has a volume control on it, like you say, exemplifies why it's such a pointless thing for music to be mixed this way. You can turn it up. Or down. It's idiotic for the recording's quality to be intentionally compromised solely for the sake of making it sound louder.

See: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Loudness_war


tvtropes.org also has a great page on this.

http://tvtropes.org/pmwiki/pmwiki.php/Main/LoudnessWar?from=Main.RecordOfLoudnessWar

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Gez said:

95% of everything is crap. This is a constant through the age. One thing, though: crap is biodegradable. Wait long enough, and pretty much nothing remains, except in rare cases where it fossilizes and becomes coprolites, but then it makes them historically interesting.


This is about tangible, measurable changes in musical trends. Whether it's crap or not simply comes down to personal opinion. Honestly, responses like these just come across as regurgitated and don't really add anything to the discussion.

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Use3D said:

I walked up to a sack of festering garbage on the street, hit it with a tuning fork and got a Rhianna song..quite amazing.

You know, Tom Waits once created a sound by stretching piano strings through a dumpster. He described the sound as trainlike, IIRC. Loud and huge.

The man's a genius.

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Mr. Freeze said:

I have 3 Top 40 stations on my car's radio. Come at me, bro.


Oh, it's on. That crap'll rot ur soul.

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Snakes said:

Well, I don't listen to pop music so I really don't have too much to say about this beyond, "Well... duh?" It doesn't seem that hard to figure out that all pop music sounds the same these days once here one of the countless remixes where they manage to get all of the songs in the same track without blinking an eye.

Hopefully they'll start researching something useful, now.

Yes, most people have listened to over 400,000 songs and noticed the trends in pitch transitions, timbral palettes, and volume dynamics over time. Jesus fucking christ.

Could we drop our preconcieved notions of contemporary pop music and actually have an intelligent discussion about this? I know very little about music but I have become more interested in it in recent years. I know there are musicians and people well educated in music and was wondering what insights they had on this new data. I used to ascribe to the rose-tinted glasses theory but I found this study to be very interesting and now I have to re-evaulate my viewpoint. I wonder why this is happening. Ralphis's post in this thread brings up a good possibility. The music that follows these patterns is the music that gets the most money and popularity. This makes the audience the cause for this change as opposed to the musicians. Why have people bought more into music that stays within these bounds? There is the initial response given by some that today's people are just stupider than they were before. This is a possibility, but I tend to find it more an assertion of superiority than an actual thought out response. While there are certainly more less educated people today, the amount of knowledge we as a species posses is obviously much greater than ever was. I do not know if the proportion of "smart" people to "dumb" people has changed. However, even if the proportion stayed the same, the amount of "dumb" people still grew, so there is an ever-increasing market, and also there is an increasing need to put out content that everybody likes and thus panders to the "lowest-common-denominator".

There are other possibilities too. Could the change from analog to digital recording be partly or even fully responsible? Not only this, but the music is being made more often with purely electronic instruments. Could this be responsible for the homogenization of the timbre palette?

Loudness war I think we understand already. We are by nature attracted to louder sounds, so it's clear why music producers do this. However, as has been stated, it sacrifices the dynamic range possible with the limited space available on CDs. If it hits the wall sooner or later will people notice? But there is another possibility. Aren't CDs becoming obsolete to digital downloads? As we are able to download and store more data will we be able to preserve dynamic range through the loudness war?

Finally, there is the possibility that this data is faulty somehow. Someone down the line will probably point out flaws in the way this study was conducted and I'll have no idea who is right.

I'm probably making myself look like an idiot. But by all means correct what I'm saying instead of complaining more about Top 40 artists.

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The loudness war has nothing to do with media formats. Compressing the dynamic range of a recording makes it appear louder and that is all. Using higher bitrates won't permit more dynamics in recordings because more dynamics are not the goal. Limited dynamic range and higher perceived loudness is the goal. It sucks.

Music certainly is somewhat constrained by the technology used at the time. 80s music doesn't just sound the way it does because 80s people were crazy. Most of the synth sounds you hear in 80s music are the result of presets on low-cost synthesizers. The fact that some of them were nasty to program didn't help matters. You're right that this is still somewhat true. Some people can't do anything interesting with their instruments and thus you hear the same things again.

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I have a music degree FWIW.

Electronic sound synthesis has never been easier or more powerful and this allows for the possibility of constant timbral novelty. In contemporary pop music this possibility has not been realized, because pop is a regressive genre unconcerned with musical innovation, instead focused on recombining existing elements endlessly.

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I think that has a lot to do with the boom in VST software synths. The vast majority of vanilla presets in them are geared towards trance/dance music. When Hip Hop and RnB producers started using them, they also started using those presets like supersaws and arpeggiator sequences, then it all just piggybacked from there.

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Aliotroph? said:

The loudness war has nothing to do with media formats. Compressing the dynamic range of a recording makes it appear louder and that is all. Using higher bitrates won't permit more dynamics in recordings because more dynamics are not the goal. Limited dynamic range and higher perceived loudness is the goal. It sucks.

Oh, so they compress the dynamic range on purpose? I thought it was a side effect from making it louder.

jute said:

I have a music degree FWIW.

Electronic sound synthesis has never been easier or more powerful and this allows for the possibility of constant timbral novelty. In contemporary pop music this possibility has not been realized, because pop is a regressive genre unconcerned with musical innovation, instead focused on recombining existing elements endlessly.

Why do people go for this though? I can understand people propelling themselves up while making music like this but I don't know why people actively seek music that is made this way. Or is it chalked up to "nobody likes change so we're playing it safe"?

GeckoYamori said:

I think that has a lot to do with the boom in VST software synths. The vast majority of vanilla presets in them are geared towards trance/dance music. When Hip Hop and RnB producers started using them, they also started using those presets like supersaws and arpeggiator sequences, then it all just piggybacked from there.

Aliotroph? said:

Music certainly is somewhat constrained by the technology used at the time. 80s music doesn't just sound the way it does because 80s people were crazy. Most of the synth sounds you hear in 80s music are the result of presets on low-cost synthesizers. The fact that some of them were nasty to program didn't help matters. You're right that this is still somewhat true. Some people can't do anything interesting with their instruments and thus you hear the same things again.

How hard is it to change these presets?

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A bit off topic, but sometimes modern music scares me. Can anyone even think of any new genres of music that have developed in the last couple of decades? Granted, nothing anyone can do will ever be fundamentally "new," but it seems to me that after the initial reaction to electronic music, punk rock and hip-hop, nothing daring and different really emerged; just countless sub-genres. I'd love to hear something that really turns some heads, something that can't be so easily pigeon-holed. Sometimes I try to do that with my music project, but ultimately it's just another form of electronica.

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DuckReconMajor said:

Oh, so they compress the dynamic range on purpose? I thought it was a side effect from making it louder.

Compressing the dynamic range is the main way of making it sound louder, so it's more or less on purpose, yes.

How hard is it to change these presets?

The basics of programming a synth sound are relatively simple to learn. Presets are just a bunch of included instruments that come with a synth so that it's more useful out of the box and users can get an idea of what its capabilities are. I program most of my own sounds nowadays because I'm familiar enough with the synths and effects I use that I can usually create what I'm after without much trouble, and even failed attempts often lead to interesting results. It also helps in creating a more personalized overall sound based on the techniques you tend to use.

I suppose a lot of producers just rely on preset sounds because it's less effort than creating their own.

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Why don't they stop compressing the dynamic range and instead push hardware manufacturers to start increasing the volume of the playback devices? That way, the general population will still unwittingly get to hear it louder, and it won't damage the audio.

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