If you have long believed that all pop music sounds the same and is played too loud, you’re right–science has confirmed your suspicions. Using the Million Song Dataset–a database compiled by researchers at Columbia University that breaks down one million hit songs from 1955 to 2010 into analyzable data–artificial intelligence specialists at the Spanish National Research Council have shown that the varieties of notes and chords used has vastly diminished over the years, while the timbre palette (the different qualities of sound) has also shrunk considerably. At the same time, the recording volume of these songs has increased, so that a song recorded in 2012 plays much louder than one from say the 1970’s, even when played at the same volume on your iPod. “We found evidence of progressive homogenization of the musical discourse,” summarized team leader Joan Serra.
But are we really facing the descent of music into a bland gray wash of total sameness? Or are we possibly seeing the perfection of a form? Prototypes are often disparate and unique. With progress products become similar, eventually merging into a single and recognizeable form. Compare the daffy man-powered wings of the 1910’s with the Wright Brothers marvelous flying machine. Who now wants to board the plane that doesn’t look like the others at an airport? But that is not art, you say. Even there, a precedent for uniformity: the melodies of Rameau, Scarlatti, or Angelo Corelli are hard to distinguish–their high Baroque period witnessed what we might now call a homogenization of the intricate form, a little like pop after 1955. (No telling, though, whether the musicians played louder.) The news may not be all bad: after them came Mozart.