Acoustic Instruments: A Tale of Two Millennia


(This post originally appeared here.)

When Bob Dylan notoriously went electric at the 1965 Newport Folk Festival, his folkie fans freaked. Here was their hero, known for singing solo in the Village with an acoustic guitar and a harmonica around his neck, with an electric Fender Stratocaster, a leather jacket, and a backing band. (At least he still had the harmonica.)

Not only did this become one of the most iconic moments of the ’60s, but it is perhaps the most famous encapsulation of an ongoing trend from the ’50s to right around the year 2000 — a trend away from acoustic sounds and towards electric and then electronic ones.

We define acousticness as probably what you would think: how many prominent acoustic sounds a given track has (for example acoustic guitar and tambourine) versus how many electronic sounds it has (synthesizer, drum machine). To accomplish this across over millions of tracks, we taught our audio analysis system to determine how acoustic a given track is just by analyzing the audio file.

What we found when we looked at popular music over the past few decades through this lens: Popular music started out fairly acoustic in the ’50s. After that, its “acousticness” declined steadily, decade after decade, mirroring technology’s integration into greater society at large:


You don’t have to be Skrillex to appreciate that music has gotten more electronic, of course. And, everybody knows that the ‘80s saw a big rise in drum machines and synthesizer. We all have an instinctive sense that music has sounded more electronic, and less acoustic, over the past few decades.

We can trust our ears, this time around, in a sense, what we already knew about acousticness over time proves that our audio analysis is working properly. Popular music has in fact shifted away from acoustic sounds and towards electronic ones, although the ratio has been fairly stable since the turn of the millennium.

Acoustic pop:


Acoustic blues:


More acoustic pop:


(Top image courtesy of Flickr/Markus Grossalber)