Popular Music Has Grown Less Organic Over Time


(This post originally appeared here.)

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When cave people made the first music by chanting, banging rocks, and so on, music was arguably at its most organic. Ever since, from the invention of rudimentary flutes and drums through to today’s tightly-orchestrated, technically elaborate Las Vegas EDM sets, music has grown more rhythmically precise and artificial sounding.

The drum, metronome, drum machine, MIDI, samplers, and the rest — all of this, generally speaking, has represented a march away from looser, acoustic music, and towards tighter, electronically-derived music.

In other words, music has sounded less organic over time.

Data alchemist Glenn McDonald identified this shift towards a less organic sound even in the relative microcosm of pop music from 1950 to the present day. He ran the 5,000 hottest songs through an experimental audio attribute called organicness. In doing so, McDonald revealed that our favorite music has grown steadily less organic since 1950.

“High organicness means more acoustic instrumentation and more human tempo fluctuations (think sumptuous, fluttery harp music),” explains McDonald, “and low organicness means more electric and more click-tracky (think relentlessly pounding techno).”

As the chart shows, popular music’s organicness has declined steadily since the dawn of rock n’ roll up until 2013:


Here’s some music with an extremely high organicness score:

By contrast, here’s a distinctly non-organic jam:

Of course, there’s no hard and fast rule that music’s organicness will continue to decline; a folkier, more acoustic sound with lots of loose tempo shifts could always make a comeback. However, if the historical trend is an indication, music’s march towards a less organic sound will continue.

(Image courtesy of Flickr/Linus)