The Dilemma of Sameness in Today’s Pop Music

If everyone is craving sameness in music, what’s an intelligent songwriter to do?

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Rock & Roll BandNo 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:

  1. There is more “sameness” in today’s music. In other words, performers all seem to be striving to sound the same.
  2. There are fewer combinations of melodies and chords. Composers, arrangers and producers are becoming less and less adventurous in their chord choices.
  3. 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.
  4. 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:

  1. strive to use interesting combinations of instruments;
  2. use dynamics (differences between loud and soft) as a compositional tool;
  3. create interesting lyrics by using common everyday words; and
  4. 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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Written by Gary Ewer, from “The Essential Secrets of Songwriting” website.
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9 Comments

  1. Hey gary, im agree with but…

    but the bid problems is ALL the singers (bibier, kesha, britney,etc) sound like the same!!!!!!!!!!! I think its because autotune issue.

    There is not texture in the voice!!

  2. Pingback: IndieSongwriter.net | Ideas and Advice for Songwriters (formerly songwright.co.uk)

  3. That’s why I agree that proper music curation is the key. And its an extremely complex task. You’re right gary with today’s technology there are hundreds or maybe even thousands of songs/music made everyday but who has the time to sort it out? That’s why online radio formats and music as a service is the way to go bec its a combination of discovering new music and that’s still within your taste, its a fine balance. “Popular” music is just the tip of the iceberg there’s a lot more waiting to be discovered.

  4. Thanks for the article, Gary.

    Personally, I reacted to the report with a “meh”. Does it really need a 50-year data research by a Spanish scientist to arrive at a conclusion we have known all along?

    Sounds like overkill beating on a dead horse to me.

    That said, I worry about the cultural, self perceptional bias is going on here. You know how the old generation is always saying “children grow up so fast nowadays”, “they don’t make it like they used to”, and bla bla bla?

    Pop music has always been pop music. When classical music was pop music, did they complain that each symphony used the same string sections, horns, and percussion sounds?

    When swing became the music of the young kids, did they complain that all the pop songs used 4 piece bands AND the same ii – V – I basic chord movement?

    I actually think there are a LOT more variety in today’s music. With artist ranging from Gotye to Nicki Minaj ruling the charts, it shows that people have always had eclectic taste in music – as long as it registers to their emotions.

    Hopefully this research isn’t just another old generation justification that gives them the satisfaction of laughing at the younger generations taste and behavior in order to feel like a superior generation (of which no generation is).

    In short: what we think is better is usually biased by our own perceptions.

    Cheers,

    • ?? “When classical music was pop music” – Tch..Tch..Tch…IMHO, there was “Folk Music” and “Classical Music”.. and Classical music was neva “popular” like folk music!

      Don’t equate chart hits with song quality..that’s a different phenomenon.

  5. i understand the study is based on “physical evidence” alone and does not include other criteria e.g. the capability to create emotions. what about the similarity or rather the use of certain rhythms or other positive clichees? i actually might agree to some points of the study but on the other hand with so many elements that make “good music” left out, i might as well call it s t u p i d .

  6. The mainstream has always been dominated by blandness. What has happened is that interesting music doesn’t need to bother with the mainstream – it used to be that there was only one way to success – the top 40. Now, for anything interesting, the marketing guys aren’t going to risk any money on it, and the musicians don’t need to bother when there are different avenues for success. So I’d regard this study as good news – it shows us the mainstream will hopefully die away (I know it won’t, but we can hope, can’t we?)

    • Good point, Tom.

      When the results of this study came out, the first thing I thought was that nothing much has really changed. And I started to think about Classical music, specifically Mozart and Haydn. In their world, “sameness” didn’t necessarily equate to blandness. Everyone was actually trying to sound like each other. That desire to sound the same was a cycle that ebbed and flowed. By the time the Romantic era took hold, sounding different was in vogue. Then in the early 20th century, it was back to neoclassicism and sameness. Then by the 1940s, difference was back in fashion. The composer, Morton Feldman, wrote an article in the 1950s called, “Who Cares If You Listen?”

      The problem with pop music is that sameness really means the dumbing-down of music. If you write something longer than 4 minutes you’re practically accused of being an elitist. But the good news is that there is lots of good music out there, if anyone cares to look for it. And that’s always been the case.

      -Gary

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