Yup, it really does all sound the same. The evolution of modern pop music.

Aug 13 2012 Published by under Uncategorized

NOTE: Sci is usually at SciAm Blogs on Monday, but they're doing some updates to the site, and I thought I would stay over here for today, just in case.

I have an officemate (and I know they’re reading, everyone say hi to my awesome officemate!) who likes to listen to pop music in the lab. One time, the latest David Guetta (and various artists) was on, and we were working away like good little labrats. And then I made my officemate stop the music. I made them go back, and skip through some of the songs, playing about the first 20 seconds of each.

…they all sounded awfully alike. If you didn’t know what track number you were on, you’d never be able to tell whether you were about to hear Niki Minaj or Snoop Dogg within the first 10 seconds. The opening beats were similar, the opening chords were similar.

But we kept on chair-dancing along. I mean, it’s fun music.

But it did make me think. Is it just me, or does a lot of modern pop music really sound…the same? Or more alike, anyway, than in the past?

And luckily for me, a study came out that answers my question. It’s not just me and being old (get offa my lawn!) pop music really is becoming more…the same.

Serra et al. “Measuring the Evolution of Contemporary Western Popular Music” Scientific Reports, 2012.

It’s not just pop music, most country music sounds like other country music. And it’s not just limited to American music, a lot of other pop music from other countries sounds very similar as well. Most K-Pop sounds like most other K-Pop, and Indian pop music sounds a lot like other Indian Pop music. Heck, even a lot of indie music sounds similar.

But here's the question: what MAKES them similar? Is pop music really becoming more similar over time, and if so, how exactly? What is different about it from older music?

To look at this question, the authors of this study went to a huge database of music, the million song dataset. The dataset contains songs and descriptions from the past 55 years (more than 1,200 DAYS of listening, I really hope the authors didn't have to do that...). The music is of various genres (pop, rock, metal, hip hop, etc), and each is decribed in terms of three specific areas: loudness, pitch, and timbre. Loudness is not the ACTUAL loudness (I hear we can adjust that these days), but rather, subjective loudness, a PERCEPTION of sound amplitude. For example, this song:

Will be a lot louder in our perception than this one:

No matter what the volume.

Pitch and timbre are easier to quantify. Pitch is the tonal structure of the song, what key it's in, how the chords progress, what the melody is like, the basic "sound" of the piece. Timbre, on the other hand, is is the "color" of the piece, what it FEELS like, the difference between electric and acoustic guitar, between autotune and basic recording.

The analysis of these three metrics, looking at thousands of songs over time, is pretty complicated. The authors built up a "vocabulary" of musical elements, different types of pitch, timbre, and loudness. The combinations of these three elements will change beat to beat within a song, so they analyzed over 1,000,000 of the vocabulary phrases that were consecutive across several beats in the song (meaning more consistent than something occurring just once). They looked for patterns within the groupings of vocabulary phrases for each song.

And what they found was a lot of similarity. It turns out that there are specific combinations of loudness, pitch, and timbre which are REALLY persistent across time. There are certain combinations that clearly just sound "good" to us. And when you think about it, this makes a lot of sense, in many different genres. Some types of phrases and some aspects of music will persist over time, from classical to rock.

But what about the way music has changed? Well it turns out, the more things change, the more they stay the same!

What you can see above are various measures of the metrics used. The first shows similarity in pitch distribution from 1965, 1985, and 2005. The z score on the bottom is a measure of homogeneity, or how similar the pitches are in the songs, and you can see that the similarity of pitch has become more common over time. This help up for loudness, pitch, and timbre.

So what the authors concluded was that some aspects of music stay the same over time, but other aspects change, and it's these aspects that make music sound "new". But what's weird is that the aspects that change...well they actually become more similar over time. Music gets louder, the tunes get more restricted, and the timbre becomes the same old mix of electric guitar and synth. This homogenization, the increasing sameness, is actually what makes the music sound "new". And the authors argue that a song from 1955, if it had the right loudness, pitch, and timbre, could pass for a brand new shiny song, if it fulfilled the right requirement: sounding exactly the same as other current songs.

I should point out, they did study ONLY the pop songs in this database. I do wonder if the same holds true for other genres (and I strongly suspect that it does).

And it makes me wonder. Will we ever approach the pop music singularity? Does this mean that the one most repetitive, with the least variety of pitch progression, the most loud, the most boring, the most PERFECT pop song really could exist?

…is it this one?


Joan Serrà, Álvaro Corral, Marián Boguñá, Martín Haro, & Josep Lluis Arcos (2012). Measuring the evolution of contemporary western popular music Scientific Reports 2, 521 (2012) arXiv: 1205.5651v1

22 responses so far

  • Jenn L says:

    Not to be nitpicky, but the 2nd k-pop video is a video of "Mr. Simple" by Super Junior, but for some reason the track over it is T-ara's "Roly Poly".

  • Regis says:

    Awesome story!

    This makes economic sense. If the industry knows what sells, why not keep using it? I'd imagine they're thinking "If it's not broken, don't fix it."

  • The Doctor says:

    Ha! You should hear the music from the year 5,000,000,000... It's ALL the same...

  • Melanie T. says:

    This is too funny! My big one is that I remember about 4 years ago when "Elevator" by Flo Rida/Timbaland and "4 Minutes" by Madonna/JT/Timbaland came out at the same time, and sounded IDENTICAL...my college roommate and I used to sing them both at the same time to make fun of the fact that they were basically the same song. Then more recently, I also remember thinking that Enrique Iglesia's "Tonight (I'm Lovin' You)" and Britney's "Till The World Ends" basically had the same exact pre-chorus lead-in.

    Anyway, awesome post 🙂

  • R Jones says:

    If the first two tracks are representative of the current database for pop music, it is a very small slice of the pie indeed. They're both pop progressive house tracks. No one needs a study to tell them that music from that genre all sounds the same. The music business is different now than it was in the 50's and 60's. Call it micro-genres. Pop music in the past included more diversity, the diversity in music today is captured by many genres outside of pop.

    Also, the study did not include rhythm, which may be more diverse in some ways than it was in the 50's and 60's. Two of the criteria, timbre and loudness, are mostly due to the homogenization of production techniques, rather than music itself, and competition among record labels to be louder on the radio.

    This study certainly does not apply to all of the music being made today, which may be more diverse than ever across genres, but less diverse within genres.

  • blindboy says:

    One reason for the similarities is that pop music has gone back to the fifties in the way it is produced. Tin pan alley is back, bigger than ever. The headline artist is the icing on a cake baked by a very limited group of writers, musicians and producers.

    It doesn't take much effort to get out of the rut. There is plenty of genre busting material out there and plenty of original artists....but you won't hear them on the radio or find them promoted in mass media. Google Daytrotter for starters!

  • Lauren says:

    What an amazingly interesting post! And I'm so glad science now backs up my old-lady grumblings of modern day music... YAY!

  • Cedric says:

    I call bullshit on this study. What these graphs show could as well be a standardisation in recording quality. Sound quality, even on top ten hits, was very variable up to a relatively recent point. it really varied from studio to studio. I'm pretty sure that if everybody had recorded with the same high quality equipment the Beatles had at Abbey Road, the 60's pop graphs would have looked very similar too.

  • Rich says:

    Pop music is the "fast food" of the music world. It's produced AND consumed by people who don't care much about music. It's just noise to fill up the vacancy between their ears.

    There is lot's of quality music being produced. Fortunately, pop music fans are unaware of the existance of quality music - and the rest of us hope that it stays that way!

  • [...] Yup, it really does all sound the same. The evolution of modern pop music. [...]

  • maxx silver says:

    Well put, and sad to relate how true it is. Can't songwriters try for more variety - take more risks. My blog explores what is wrong with modern pop music and points one or two ways towards a solution... http://maxxsilvermusic.com/messages---the-maxx-blog.html

  • Fred Lalala says:

    There have always been trends and copycats in pop music. But today IS different. You have essentially the same 3 0r 4 producers re-writing the same 3 or 4 songs over and over for EVERY artist in the top 40. Can you imagine Aretha Franklin sounding exactly like the Doors, and the Rolling Stones sounding exactly like Sly and the Family Stone? Well that's what TODAY'S so-called artists are. They all sound exactly the same, with similar progressions, homogenized and trite melodies, in computer-generated recordings that contain zero dynamic range and auto-tuned vocals.

    It's garbage. And that's why the "top 40" does NOT engage a majority of music fans. Go back and listen to an old American Top 40 show (they are available) from say, 1974 and compare it to today's version. It's not just about the styles and the fashion, it's about the actual musical talent and variety. Both are missing today.

    Yes there was plenty of forgettable trash back then. But today? It's all forgettable trash. And note to those who point out that there is plenty of great music today that's just not being heard: No there isn't.

  • [...] while asserting a false sense of originality. As a result, we start noticing that all the popular songs sound the same. Sub-par Artwork that doesn’t really further the discipline sells like crazy among uneducated [...]

  • Anonymous says:

    Pop artists of today are not musical artists. Some of them are even unremarkable singners withouth their autotune microphones. Pop singers identify themselves with a personal 'style' nowadays rather than their music. This is why lady gha dresses the way she does. This is why menage and katy perry are the way they are. They all have different styles they try to sell. Apart from that, most of their music could be sun be any other artist and it would sound like that song belong to that artist. Try that with a Doors song being sung by The Beatles - you'll know its not a Beatles song..

  • m.whitbrook says:

    forget about melodys in todays pop music rubbish its GONE ...the 60s and 70s saw it off .now its not possible the combination of notes makes it impossible now to make a decent and recognisable song.....music is now for little children and silly girl teenagers..the music that comes out is who can make the loudest noise the quality of intstrumention is so easy a child could learn it....banging the drums any how ..strumming the guitars and shouting a load of crap down a mic .that what it s all about now ...what its going to be like in future is god only knows

  • John Doole says:

    The thing nobody seems to have mentioned, is that an awful lot of modern music has no actual musicians on it. It's all programmed, sampled and sequenced.

    No two drummers, guitar players or bass players sound alike, so very often you could tell who the band was before the singer opened their mouth. Also, musicians (well, some of them) developed over time, so they would start using more complex chords and their arrangements would become more interesting. Not so now, as nobody actually plays anything, so there's no development.

  • JensDensen says:

    I blame the radio stations they only play that overly empty commercial crap. I'm not against commercial per se, in the 80's there was good stuff like trever horn it was commercial but also good stuff but somehow the radio stations have decided to sell only the cheapest crap. And it's completely in reverse the real music is there like dnb (bassdrive.com) there's really good stuff out there even pop (tesla boy) but they never play that on the radio they only play that completely hollowed out commercial crap. They have created some sort of bubble as if that's the world of music, anything real does't get in anymore they have created a complete illusion.

  • Steve Korner says:

    You people should do some research. You're all sounding like you think music hasn't ALWAYS been this way. To the disinterested ear, all hip-hop/rap/pop sounds alike, just as much of the art music from the past sounds the same. All Medieval chants can be identified as chants, but they all sound the same to someone who doesn't care to notice the differences. Same with Renaissance Madrigals, and Baroque and Classical compositions. The most famous ones sound distinctive, but if you listen to the less famous pieces from different eras, every era (read: genre, before the romantic era came along and set the stones for today's drfinition of genre) begins to have its own "sound" and in turn causes all music within an era to sound roughly the same... to the layperson unwilling to hear the differences in the first place. Music has always been this way.

    A student of music

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