Monday, February 9, 2015

All pop songs sound the same...or do they?

I was going to write about Katy Perry’s half-time show, but all that really mattered were the giant puppet tiger and the left and right sharks. The Super Bowl is not about musical subtlety or innovation.

Instead, in honor of the Grammys and the controversy of Sam Smith's "Stay with Me" vs. Tom Petty's "I Won't Back Down," I want to bring up this article by Tom Barnes from, which is titled: “Scientists Just Discovered Why All Pop Music Sounds Exactly the Same.” This article is reporting on another scientific article, and as you can imagine the title totally misconstrues what the scientific article really claims.

Let’s start by reading the abstract of the scientific article, “Instrumental Complexity of Music Genres and Why Simplicity Sells,” by Percino, Klimek, and Thurner, which is a little dry, but is the first place to turn for knowing what the scientific article actually claims (emphasis added):

Listening habits are strongly influenced by two opposing aspects, the desire for variety and the demand for uniformity in music. In this work we quantify these two notions in terms of instrumentation and production technologies that are typically involved in crafting popular music. We assign an ‘instrumentational complexity value’ to each music style. Styles of low instrumentational complexity tend to have generic instrumentations that can also be found in many other styles. Styles of high complexity, on the other hand, are characterized by a large variety of instruments that can only be found in a small number of other styles. To model these results we propose a simple stochastic model that explicitly takes the capabilities of artists into account. We find empirical evidence that individual styles show dramatic changes in their instrumentational complexity over the last fifty years. ‘New wave’ or ‘disco’ quickly climbed towards higher complexity in the 70s and fell back to low complexity levels shortly afterwards, whereas styles like ‘folk rock’ remained at constant high instrumentational complexity levels. We show that changes in the instrumentational complexity of a style are related to its number of sales and to the number of artists contributing to that style. As a style attracts a growing number of artists, its instrumentational variety usually increases. At the same time the instrumentational uniformity of a style decreases, i.e. a unique stylistic and increasingly complex expression pattern emerges. In contrast, album sales of a given style typically increase with decreasing instrumentational complexity. This can be interpreted as music becoming increasingly formulaic in terms of instrumentation once commercial or mainstream success sets in.
I think the main thing to note that the only aspect of music the study observed is instrumentation. The study did not look at form, harmony, melody, or even timbre, which can vary widely even with the same instrumentation. The study does not claim “all pop music sounds the same,” it is saying that as a particular genre of music become more popular, and more artists are attracted to the genre, increasing the variety of the genre, but the albums that sell the most copies tend to have similar instrumentation. Although this is somewhat circular logic (best-selling albums in a certain genre tend to have the same instrumentation, and genre is somewhat determined by instrumentation), it’s pretty interesting. But what the article describes has little to do with the actual study.

Here’s another statement from the article that the source material does not support: “Simplicity sells best across all music genres.” First, this pattern was only observed in the better-selling genres. There were some genres, such as folk rock and electronic music, that do not conform to the pattern. Also, an emerging genre does not conform to the pattern. And of course, there are many, many exceptions. One exception actually turns up in the first paragraph of the scientific study: Daft Punk’s Random Access Memories, which has very complex instrumentation and sold almost 1 million copies. True, it did not sell the more than 2 million of Justin Timberlakes 20/20 Experience (which was more formulaic in terms of instrumentation), but this was a weird paring for the scientific article to make in the introduction because 1) these albums are not really the same genre and 2) they are still both very well selling. There are many other things I could say about this study, but for the sake of space, I'll stop.

The moral of the story: First, scientific articles are not infallible. And second, please, if you are reporting on a scientific article, actually try to understand and articulate its real content. Even if “Best-Selling Albums in an Established Genre have Similar Instrumentation” doesn’t work as well for clickbait.

Vocab: genre, instrumentation

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