Remember meForgot password?
    Log in with Twitter

Op-Ed: Yes, pop music is too loud and it is all the same, says new study

By Paul Wallis     Jul 29, 2012 in Technology
Sydney - You’re not imagining the musical monoculture. Modern pop has now been subjected to a real study using the Million Song Database, studying music from 1955 to 2010, and the results are unmistakable.
News Daily
"We found evidence of a progressive homogenization of the musical discourse," Serra (artificial intelligence specialist Joan Serra at the Spanish National Research Council ) told Reuters. "In particular, we obtained numerical indicators that the diversity of transitions between note combinations - roughly speaking chords plus melodies - has consistently diminished in the last 50 years."
They also found the so-called timbre palette has become poorer. The same note played at the same volume on, say, a piano and a guitar is said to have a different timbre, so the researchers found modern pop has a more limited variety of sounds.
The loudness issue, which relates to the theory of sound blasting using higher volume recording levels, was also proven. Most musicians despise this method as unbelievably amateurish. The idea was to make music more audible in noisy environments, but the effect is to basically trash mix values of the originals. It’s the volume equivalent of white noise, equal racket with no actual sound values for specific instruments, which naturally does nothing for subtlety, musician's peace of mind, or quality of the mix. “Highlights” are sometimes heard above the din. This acoustic mess is known as Peak Limiting, and at one stage the jerks even wanted to charge more for properly mixed recordings.
Some musical history
There’s a huge irony here. Anyone who knows the range, flexibility and power of an orchestra using acoustic instruments will appreciate it. The structure of modern music is actually based on the human ear, which is attuned to specific sounds and pitches of musical notes. Nor is volume much of a real issue. Beethoven could produce a wall of sound and lyrical melodies like the Pastoral Symphony with ease and no amplification at all. Handel and Bach could achieve their melodic and tricky arrangements simply using the mechanics of playing. Pianissimo and forte were used to create multiple levels of sound in combination with arrangements and the idiosyncrasies of the instruments.
“Modern” music technology is quite capable of faithfully reproducing any sound it’s possible to make. The early recordings of the analogue sound era were excellent. They could even fit Hendrix and his gigantic sound range on to an album. After a rather dire interlude of trying to equate digital signals to analogue sounds, even the record companies got the message and stopped trying to digitize acoustic sounds.
The study may have missed this point- Electric instruments tend to have very similar pickups and amplifiers tend to produce very similar sounds, if not identical. Direct digital sound mixing is even more homogenous, largely because it works on very similar systems. One modified wave from a wave generator on a synthesizer has a direct relationship with all other waves. Samples are often quite similar.
Pre-recorded patches are always going to be very similar. Drum patches, in particular, are almost lifelessly anonymous, compared to real drumming. Guitar patches- forget it. They simply cannot duplicate touch and articulation. The story is much the same with other instruments.
The human ear, that useful thing, can also pick up distinctions created by the air. Cold air produces clearer sound than thick, hot air. Sound waves passing through atmosphere are well-known issues for acoustics. Sound waves passing through machinery and circuits can’t experience those effects.
Ears care- A lot
There’s another issue, and it’s all about ears. If you listen to Robert Johnson, particularly the slide sounds, you’ll hear something that even modern music buffs rarely recognize- “organic” sound. This is direct from the instrument, “ambient” sound related to things like guitar sound boxes, etc. It was progressively filtered out by later recording systems, but if you do a live recording of yourself using a basic mike, you’ll hear it. The point here is that human ears pick up on all sounds, however obscure, and identify them. Without those sounds, the sound becomes progressively more artificial.
The point is that the human ear is far more efficient than modern recordings. You can hear the lifelessness of so many over-recorded, over-produced bits of music. Strumsy-wumsie “washboard” guitar, thuddy-plodding bass lines, tin can drums with no actual hit on the skin, you can’t really miss these fraudulent sounds.
Every individual sound played is also a bit different. When you play a guitar, you progressively tune the guitar down over time. The strings loosen. Even piano wires react, incredibly slowly, to percussive hits from the keys. Drum skins respond differently.
Every instrument is different. No two guitars, even the same make and same vintage, are quite the same. They behave differently, and will become more different as they’re played in different styles with different pieces of music. (Guitars actually evolve through playing, too. I’d better shut up on this subject or this article will be a book, but you get the idea.) One will have a better action on the neck, etc. Nobody’s ever accused violins or other instruments of being homogenous, either.
So “real music” really is just that- authentic sound. The accusation of being homogenous equates to not being music. Few music lovers would disagree.
One of the reasons so much modern music doesn’t sell is because it has no real identity. It failed the ID test of the ears. If you’ve heard one washing machine, you’ve heard them all. Nobody can force you to listen to “kitchen appliance music”. People don’t. They’re not even motivated to listen, because these one trick wonder pitches aren’t real notes. They’re literally off key for human ears. Even hip hop got the message, and started reintroducing real music because nobody could bother trying to remember patches and monoculture raps.
Now the payoff- Who’s the biggest new artist in years? Adele. Why? Because Rolling in the Deep was real music. Blew away everything else and deservedly so, with that incredible voice and delivery. It was no contest, in comparison with the El Cheapo Grocery Soundtrack of bogus sounds.
Music will survive this encounter with the bland and the useless. Just be patient- The “industry” will figure it out any decade now.
This opinion article was written by an independent writer. The opinions and views expressed herein are those of the author and are not necessarily intended to reflect those of
More about Adele, Million Song Database, Spanish National Research Council, Joan Serra, acoustic science
More news from