As The Beat Goes On, It Gets More Accurate


(This post originally appeared here.)

The idea of playing music to a click track isn’t new; it predates recording. Composers Beethoven and Salieri were both early proponents of the modern metronome, patented in 1815, which keeps a steady time so that musicians can keep a beat with more accuracy.

Data alchemist Glenn McDonald took a look at how what one might call “click-trackiness” of popular music has changed, by running the 5,000 hottest songs from every year from 1950 to 2013 through our mechanism attribute. This connotes how rigidly regular a song is, with organic, tempo-wandering music getting a low mechanism rating, and music that adheres strictly to a click track or, even more mechanistically, to a drum machine, receiving a higher rating.

What he found: Popular music’s mechanism held pretty steady through the ’50s and ’60s, increasing slowly but steadily throughout the ’70s, shooting way up during the ’80s (drum machines) and a bit more in the ’90s (more drum machines), and stabilizing after that, right up until the present day.


Here’s a song with a high mechanism rating, with a super-consistent BPM right until near the end when it starts to vary:


And here’s one with a low mechanism rating, with a wandering tempo:


(Top photo courtesy of Flickr/James Lee)