Thursday, May 14, 2015

Darwin Can Dance! The Evolution Of Pop Music

Why do most people over 40 hate today’s music? Why do your grandparents keep playing their “Malt Shop Memories” CDs? Why does your mom start dancing when she hears Wham! and your dad start nodding his head wildly when he hears Motley Crue? Why does your Uncle never shut up about how Nirvana was the greatest band ever because they "changed everything"? 

As evidenced by their song, "Do The Evolution", Pearl Jam appears to be well-versed in evolutionary theory. But was the advent of grunge the most radical change in the course of modern music history?
Despite the cliché, the song does not remain the same. Just like biological organisms, music evolves - and where there is evolution, there is science. The modern rock band, As I Lay Dying, sings it best: “The Only Constant Is Change”. 

As I Lay Dying is not the kind of music your parents are going to understand. You can hear them now as they cover their ears, “Turn off that racket! My ears are bleeding! You call that singing? He’s just screaming! Back in my day…” and so on.

Elvis Presley is commonly known as “The King of Rock and Roll” for popularizing a groundbreaking style of music in the 1950s that fused rockabilly, country, and rhythm & blues. To this day, he remains the best selling musical artist of all time, having sold in excess of 600 million records.

With this extraordinary popularity, you’d think that his type of music would still be going strong, but one look at today’s pop music chart and you’ll quickly see that there is little on there that resembles the music Elvis brought to the world. On the contrary, there are styles of music on the charts now that Elvis never could have imagined. At the time this article was written, the #1 song on the Top 100 Billboard chart is “See You Again”, which sounds nothing like the music that was popular prior to the 1990s.

While the reason remains debatable, there’s no question that music changes over time. However, our favorite music tends to be what was popular during the most impressionable years of our youth, between ages 12 and 22. Music heard during that window in our lives appears to get hardwired into our brain, forever serving as a powerful stimulus for dopamine release, a neurotransmitter that makes us feel pleasantly satisfied (perhaps "comfortably numb").

In a new study published in Royal Society Open Science, evolutionary biologists and computer scientists “come together” to advance our understanding of pop music’s evolution. The researchers analyzed 17,000 songs from the US Billboard Hot 100 charts from 1960 to 2010 in order to identify the greatest musical revolution in recent US music history. Was it the famous “British Invasion” led by the Beatles and the Rolling Stones in the 1960s?
Was it the rise of disco in the 1970s, led by the Bee Gees, Village People, and KC & the Sunshine Band, or maybe the earth-shattering hard rock of Led Zeppelin?

Could it be the rise of synth-pop and electronic music by the likes of Madonna, Duran Duran, or Howard Jones in the 1980s?

How about the meteoric rise of those late 80s hairbands like Bon Jovi, Poison, or Warrant?
Or maybe it was the gritty angst of grunge that blasted onto the scene with Nirvana, Alice in Chains, Pearl Jam, and Soundgarden?
None of the above is correct, at least according to the criteria used by the authors of the study, which employed “cutting edge methods from signal processing and text-mining to analyze the musical properties of songs. Their system automatically grouped the thousands of songs by patterns of chord changes and tone allowing researchers to statistically identify trends with an unprecedented degree of consistency.”

The biggest upheaval occurred in 1991, but not with grunge…it was with hip-hop. Starting in the mid-80s, rap and hip-hop began climbing a steady ladder to the mainstream, with the help of artists like Run-DMC, Beastie Boys, Salt-N-Pepa, and LL Cool J. But 1991 was a watershed year with huge breakthroughs for hip-hop artists like N.W.A., Ice Cube, Ice-T, 2Pac, TLC, and Public Enemy. The radical changes in lyrical content and delivery, arrangement, and the diversity of sounds culminated to make hip-hop one of the most innovative changes to music in recent history.

With these powerful tools to analyze how music has evolved over the past 50 years, one has to wonder if it is possible to predict how music might sound in 2065.

Contributed by:  Bill Sullivan


Matthias Mauch, Robert M. Maccallum, Mark Levy, Armand M. Leroi. The evolution of popular music: USA 1960–2010. Royal Society Open Science, May 2015 DOI: 10.1098/rsos.150081
Salimpoor, V., Benovoy, M., Larcher, K., Dagher, A., & Zatorre, R. (2011). Anatomically distinct dopamine release during anticipation and experience of peak emotion to music Nature Neuroscience, 14 (2), 257-262 DOI: 10.1038/nn.2726

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