Mar 29 2024

Is Music Getting Simpler

I don’t think I know anyone personally who doesn’t have strong opinions about music – which genres they like, and how the quality of music may have changed over time. My own sense is that music as a cultural phenomenon is incredibly complex, no one (in my social group) really understands it, and our opinions are overwhelmed by subjectivity. But I am fascinated by it, and often intrigued by scientific studies that try to quantify our collective cultural experience. And I know there are true experts in this topic, musicologists and even ethnomusicologists, but haven’t found good resources for science communication in this area (please leave any recommendations in the comments).

In any case, here are some random bits of music culture science that I find interesting. A recent study analyzing 12,000 English language songs over the last 40 years has found that songs have been getting simpler and more repetitive over time. They are using fewer words with greater repetition. Further, the structure of the lyrics are getting simpler, and they are more readable and easier to understand. Also, the use of emotional words has increased, and has become overall more negative and more personal. I have to note this is a single study and there are some concerns about the software used in the analysis, but while this is being investigated the authors state that it is unlikely any glitch will alter their basic findings.

But taken at face value, it’s interesting that these findings generally fit with my subjective experience. This doesn’t necessarily make me more confident in the findings, and I do worry that I am just viewing these results through my confirmation bias filter. Still, it not only fits what I have perceived in music but in culture in general, especially with social media. We should be wary of simplistic explanations, but I wonder if this is mainly due to a general competition for attention. Overtime there is a selective pressure for media that is more immediate, more emotional, and easier to consume. The authors also speculate that it may reflect our changing habits in terms of consuming media. There is a greater tendency to listen to music, for example, in the background, while doing other things (perhaps several other things).

I’m really trying to avoid any “these kids today” moments in this piece, but I do have children and have been exposed through them (and other contexts) to their generation. It is common for them to be consuming 3-4 types of media at once. They may listen to music, while having a YouTube video running in the background, while playing a video game or watching TV. I wonder if it just comforting for people raised surrounded by so much digital media. This would tend to support the author’s hypothesis.

Our digital world has given us access to lots of media and information. But I have to wonder if that means there is a trend over time to consume more media more superficially. When I was younger I would listen to a much narrower range of music – I would buy an album of an artist I liked and listen to the entire album dozens or even hundreds of times. Now, when I listen to music, it’s mostly radio or streaming. Even when I listen to my own playlists, there are thousands of songs from hundreds of artists.

Or there may be other factors at play. Another study, for example, looking at film found that the average shot length in movies from 1945 was 13 seconds, while today it is about 4 seconds. I like to refer to this phenomenon as “short attention span theater”. But in reality I know this is about more than attention span. Directors and editors have become more skilled at communicating to their audience through cinema, and there is an evolving cinematic language that both filmmaker and audience learn. Part of the decreased shot length is that it is possible to convey and idea, emotion, or character element much more quickly and efficiently. I also think editing has just become tighter and more efficient.

I watch a lot of movies, and again having children meant I revisited many classics with them. It is amazing how well a really good classic film can hold up over time, even decades (the word “timeless” is appropriate). Simultaneously, it is amazing how dated and crusty not-so-classic movies become over time. The difference, I think, is between artistic films and popular flicks. Watch popular movies from any past decade, for example, and you will be able to identify their time period very easily. They are the opposite of timeless – they are embedded in their culture and time in a very basic way. You will likely also note that movies from past decades may tend to drag, even becoming unwatchable at times. I am OK with slow movies (2001 is still a favorite), if they are well done and the long shots have an artistic purpose. But older movies can have needlessly long scenes, actors mugging the camera for endless seconds, pointless action and filler, and a story that is just plodding.

The point is that shorter, quicker, and punchier media may not be all about short attention-span consumers. There is also a positive aspect to this – greater efficiency and a shared language. There may also be shifting habits of consumption, with the media just adapting to changing use.

But I still can’t help the subjective feeling that with music something is being lost as well. I am keenly aware that the phenomenon known as “neural nostalgia“. What may be happening is that the media we consume between the ages of 12 and 22 gets ingrained onto a brain that is rapidly developing and laying down pathways. This then becomes the standard by which we judge anything we consume for the rest of our lives. So everyone thinks that the music of their youth was the best, and music has only gotten worse since then. This is a bias that we have to account for.

But neural nostalgia does not mean that music has not objectively changed. It’s just difficult to tease apart real change from subjective perception, and to also avoid the bias of thinking of any change as a worsening (rather than just a difference). More emotional and personal song lyrics is not necessarily a bad thing, or a good thing – it’s just a thing. Simpler lyrics may sound annoyingly repetitive and mindless to boomers, but older lyrics may seem convoluted and difficult to understand let alone follow to younger generations.

I do think music can be an interesting window onto culture. It reflects the evolving lives of each generation and how cultural norms and technology are affecting every aspect of their experience.


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