Music is getting blander

No one should be surprised, but here it is:

Researchers find pop music is too loud and all sounds the same

..and from the article:

"We found evidence of a progressive homogenization of the musical discourse...In particular, we obtained numerical indicators that the diversity of transitions between note combinations--roughly speaking chords plus melodies--has consistently diminished in the last 50 years."

If you've been a student/observer of popular music, you don't need computers and complex algorithms to prove this (surely some ethnomusicologist has written a paper discussing the topic!). This research, while probably necessary and interesting, is hardly news. I would be more interested in determing exactly how exactly (and why) music has been simplified in the past half-century. My suspicion is that as our intellectual capabilities have been abbreviated, so have our tastes (and this is a "chicken and egg" question--is the music trite because our minds are hobbled, or vice-versa? That's the subject of another article).

Keep in mind the "past 50 years" takes us back to 1962. By that point, popular music was already well down the road to banality. Sure, but what does this mean?

Lacking the time, space, and grant money to conduct a full empirical survey, let's pick out two random tunes representing the high point of one era (in the 1940s) and the start of another (early 1960s):

Compare the chord progressions for "Moonlight in Vermont" from 1945...

Eb6 C-7 | F-7 Bb7 | Eb6 C-7 | Db9 : || a-7 D7 | Gma7 E-7 | a-7 D 7 &etc

And the Beatles, "I want to Hold your Hand" from 1963:

C | G | a- | e- | C | G | a- | E || F G7 | C a- | F G | C

verse || chorus

There are two differences I'd like to explore: the vertical/harmonic language, and the chord progression and harmonic movement.

The first example relies extensively on chords using an added sixth (Eb6) and seventh (e.g. Bb7). These structures add complexity and tension, and evoke a rich mix of late European Romantic harmony (often preoccupied with complex harmonies) and the language of American jazz/blues idioms. I'd hazard a guess that a plain three-note triad would sound "square" or unsophisticated in this context. The second example uses simple, three-note triads almost exclusively. The folk/rock roots of the genre underpin an overall disdain for complex harmonies, and a non-dominant seventh chord would certainly sound pretentious and out of place.

While the first sections of both tunes employ similar, simple progressions (I-vi-II-V and I-V-vi-iii), the second sections are markedly different. "Moonlight" gets more complex--using somewhat abrupt ii-V-I progressions to point toward G major (III#) while "Hold your Hand" resorts to stock, repetitive IV-V-I cadences.

The relationship between the key centers of Eb and G major in this case, represents a fascinating and advanced harmonic movement that's been the subject of several scholarly papers. This clever device can be found in abundance in the Sonata-Allegro forms used in the early Classical period, and served as a "jumping off point" for advanced and complex workings-out of musical ideas (namely, in the "Development" section). The use of chromatic tones and unrelated key centers adds complexity and interest to the music.

To the contrary, an over-reliance on formulaic, repetitive chord progressions and rudimentary chord structures indicates a rejection of earlier complexities and instead replaces them with the formulaic, the predictable, and the common.

Harsh words, I know, for the Beatles would later become one of the more advanced and experimental popular recording groups, but I do think the popular music aesthetic changed drastically in the period from 1945-1965 and these two examples reflect that.

We'll flesh this out more as we go, but based on our brief survey, we can make some guesses as to the differences between the underlying aesthetics that underpin each type of piece. I'll call the "Western Tradition" (hinted at in the discussion of "Moonlight") "Art Music" and I'll label the Beatles' work as "Folk" or "Pop" music.

Here's a brief tabulation of those differences, showing some points of comparison:

There will always be exceptions to these generalizations, but I believe they provide a useful guide for helping us discuss musical style.

More to come later.