7 Decades, 7 Musical Evolutions


(This post originally appeared here.)

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Humankind has had music for as far back as we’re able to define ourselves as such. Some of that music has always been favored by the other cave people, hunters-and-gatherers, farmers, shamans, and whoever else was hanging around.

As society changes, our favorite music changes too, and variations in musical memes are passed down through the years.

To examine these changes in popular music, The Echo Nest data alchemist Glenn McDonald traced nine distinct audio attributes of the 5,000 hottest songs from each year, 1950 to 2013.

Seven of those ways showed detectable changes in music from 1950 to the present day:

1. Music Is More Energetic

The Echo Nest at Spotify sees music from many angles — everything from reviews written by critics and fans, to the audio attributes of the music itself, which we get by literally listening to the music with software. Our energy attribute is part of that later approach. As the name suggests, it measures the energy level of a song. By analyzing how that changed over time, we could see that after a brief plateau, pop music grew roughly more energetic since the dawn of rock ‘n roll:


2. Music Is Less Organic

Music today is more mechanized-sounding than in the past. It’s not that music is literally made in a factory now, but more that musicians have increasingly had access to metronomes, click-tracks, drum machines, arpeggiators, electronic keyboards, sequencers, sophisticated software, and other things that tend to produce less than what might be called an organic sound.

The result: The Echo Nest detects decreasing organicness from 1950 to 2013:


3. The Beat Is More Accurate

As time marches on, its beat has grown increasingly consistent, due to drum machines, click tracks and the like. Back when all drummers walked the earth as humans, the tempo used to drift a bit more, within songs. Today, we have some songs where every note is exactly quantized and locked onto the tempo, although much of what we listen to these days consists of a combination of organic and mechanistic sounds.


4. It’s Not As Bouncy

Boing Boing! That’s not just the sound of Boing Boing founder and editor Mark Fraunfelder calling Glenn McDonald’s Every Noise At Once one of his two favorite things, it’s also the sound of music being bouncy.

Our bounciness attribute sees stuff like tech house and reggae as extremely bouncy, while atmospheric black metal and choral music exhibit a more fluid sound. As you can see, popular music has grown less bouncy since the ’50s, meaning that we prefer things a bit smoother these days:


5. It’s Less Acoustic

It doesn’t take an ethnomusicologist to see that popular music has grown less acoustic over time. Everyone from Bob Dylan to St. Vincent prefers the electric guitar, and that’s just one instrument that electronification has spawned. Some other instruments couldn’t exist without electricity, others without electronics.

The overall result is that music has grown less acoustic sounding, as reflected by our acousticness attribute:


6. Yes, It’s Definitely Way Louder

Glenn’s research into how loud music has gotten really struck a chord, with follow-up reports from FastCompany and Gizmodo, among others. It’s true — music really has grown louder sounding over time, as part of the so-called “loudness wars.” That is backed up by our loudness attribute, although audio volume is a bit complicated.


7. Music Is Faster Now Too

Cars are faster now. Information is faster. And so, too, is our favorite music.

By looking at the 5,000 hotttest songs from each year, McDonald found some interesting trends. We liked our music fastest during the “‘go-go” ’80s, then the hottest music grew slower again in the mid-90s. Now it’s back to being just about as fast as ever. As of 2013, the average tempo of the hottest music is 107.402 beats per minute: