If everyone is craving sameness in music, what’s an intelligent songwriter to do?
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No doubt you’d heard on the news a while back the results of a study, recently completed in Spain, that shows that today’s pop music is louder and blander than ever. And while that’s always been the complaint of the older generation, now we have actual data to support that contention. Since record producers are experts at discovering what audiences are looking for, and then giving it to them, can we assume that today’s audiences are becoming more satisfied with the musical equivalent of white bread?
The study, completed by artificial intelligence expert Joan Serra at the Spanish National Research Council, used a huge database of pop music from the past 50 years, the Million Song Dataset.
The study made four important observations:
- There is more “sameness” in today’s music. In other words, performers all seem to be striving to sound the same.
- There are fewer combinations of melodies and chords. Composers, arrangers and producers are becoming less and less adventurous in their chord choices.
- There is a more limited variety of sounds. At a time when, through computerization, the choice of timbres should be endless, musicians are becoming less and less interested in exploring those options, choosing instead sounds that keep them solidly rooted in the mainstream.
- Intrinsic loudness has increased. When you listen to music from the past 5 decades at the same volume setting on an amplifier, today’s music is louder than any previous decade.
It’s not hard to guess at the reason for this: dollars. Performers and producers don’t mind a bit of innovation, but when a song becomes a huge hit, the motivation is to attempt to copy that success. The end result will always be the kind of musical sameness that the Spanish study has identified.
And that’s the dilemma. Anything that tries to break free of the pop music mold gets labelled “alternative” or “indie”, and is therefore seen as running astride of the norms of pop music. The result is that anything that strays outside those norms doesn’t even make it to most people’s ears.
In 2011, Arcade Fire won Album Of The Year with their record The Suburbs, and was the first indie group to do so. Those who knew the group were ecstatic, and thrilled with the choice. But for many, Arcade Fire wasn’t in the pop mainstream, and so their choice as winners caused not just confusion, but out-and-out anger:
“The Grammy people have lost their mind… who are the Suburbs and how in heck did they win album of the year… smh”
Does this mean that as a songwriter, you’re doomed to create bland, unadventurous music if you want to appeal to a larger cross-section of the listening public? I don’t think so. My guess is that the decade from 2000-2010 saw the pendulum swinging as far as it could toward blandness and sameness.
It’s time for the pendulum to start swinging back in the other direction as more and more people become dissatisfied with music that lacks spice and imagination. Perhaps Arcade Fire’s win is the start of something great.
This has happened before. No doubt you could have made the same criticism in the early 1960s that most pop music producers engaged in a race to the bottom, producing music with the same kind of blandness that we see today. It took a group like the Beatles in the mid-60s to blow the concept of pop music apart.
Incidentally, The Beatles’ kind of innovation (deepening lyrical meaning, interesting instrumentation, and innovative song structure) were not real innovations at all, but were borrowed from other singer-songwriters and genres, and thrust into the spotlight by a group that had been singing basic rock & roll (albeit good rock & roll).
The findings of the Spanish study highlight the kinds of things I’ve been writing against. I’ve been saying that good music shows a healthy balance of innovation and predictability, and I very much stand by that. It does not take much innovation to be seen as imaginative.
I’ve also been saying that good music (your music) should:
- strive to use interesting combinations of instruments;
- use dynamics (differences between loud and soft) as a compositional tool;
- create interesting lyrics by using common everyday words; and
- create melodies that have contour and purposeful design.
And if the pendulum truly is due to swing back toward a more interesting and creative song structure, with more interesting instrumental accompaniments, lyrics and harmonies, the advice I’ve been giving on this blog for the past 4 years is worth a second look.
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