More Thoughts on That Study

posted by Tom on August 13, 2012 at 5:45 pm
in , , ,

I keep thinking about that


of pop music I linked to the other day. After

After running a million songs through lots of computer analysis, a team of researchers in Spain concluded that in some significant ways – having to do with loudness, timbre, and melodic and harmonic information – the “palette” of pop music is growing less diverse. “We found evidence of a progressive homogenization of the musical discourse," lead researcher Joan Serra, an artificial intelligence specialist at the Spanish National Research Council, told Reuters.

Those who’ve listened to lots of music across many different eras won’t be surprised at this, of course. The current generation of pop music consumers, those under age 18, has grown up amidst a revolution in digital music production, in which most aspects of music creation can be handled – and then significantly altered – on computer. Anyone with a Mac knows about the wonders of Garage Band, for example. Play a guitar track, turn it into a bassline, chop it up DJ style into something else entirely. In a matter of seconds.

That’s progress, sure. Still, there are elements of music that cannot be executed with the same results in the digital domain. The current generation of laptop listeners likely doesn’t know what a crescendo made by acoustic instruments feels like. As the study’s look at overall loudness suggests, it’s equally likely that these music consumers have never experienced the entrancing whisper of pianissimo – music played with intensity, at minimum volume. And what about the dramatic pause, those moments when the tempo falls away and the music drifts out of rhythm? Those devices are rare in digital music, where everything is locked onto the grid.

Also rare: Melodies that don’t repeat constantly. These days a tune like the Beach Boys’ “Sloop John B,” with its extended almost through-composed verse, seems extraordinarily ambitious. Most of the charting hits of recent times – by Lady Gaga, Adele, whomever – are organized around very short recurring phrases. Does this carpet-bombing have an effect on the brain’s ability to follow a longer and less-obvious melody?

That’s just part of the problem. People today experience music as digital mp3 files – which means the sound profile is compressed and/or compromised, in order to make the file portable. When even a few of the “zeroes and ones” are left out, the result, many musicians believe, is a less inviting sonic experience. One that’s easier to turn away from and ignore. Then there’s the question of the output equipment: Most young music obsessives listen on laptop speakers (even the premium ones are lame, in my opinion) or headphones (I’ll resist the urge to make a snarky comment about Beats gear here). When you feel physically pelted by the sound emanating from small speakers that accentuate the highs and lows to a fault, your ears fatigue quickly. And that’s to say nothing of the endless sonic input of city life: Even if you are equipped with every noise-cancelling gadget, eventually you smack into the sad truth that the world is loud, and chaotic. Perhaps that’s why listening to an entire album, start to finish, seems exotic these days. We’ve heard endless talk about how digital delivery has transformed music into a single-song phenomenon; what if part of that has to do with attention span? Having grown up with individually tailored playlists, the current music obsessive is not inclined to burrow deep into anything, or revisit music that doesn’t activate the pleasure center within seconds. It’s rare to find time to let a record sink in slowly, and as a result, perhaps, more music is being made with an ear toward “instant” likeability, with a streamlined sound. That’s another fundamental change – one critics and scholars have been carping about, in various forms, for years.

Listening to music is effortless. Becoming an astute listener, however, requires some effort – attention, diligence, the willingness to confront one’s blindspots and biases. What's valuable about this study is how it measures not individual end-users and their listening patterns, but the elements of music itself. It is concerned with the content of the work, not the marketing, the momentary social-media hotness of a particular artist, or any of a host of cultural x-factors. From this perspective, the numbingly repetitive reality of current pop looks a bit different: Music offers an endless palette of building blocks and elements. By focusing on only the most basic, the aspiring hitmaker limits his or her possibilities. And, eventually, those of the audience as well.

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