A team of computer scientists and evolutionary biologists from Queen Mary University and Imperial College London have scrutinised tens of thousands of pop songs from the last 50 years. They processed audio files to extract information about genres, harmonic qualities, timbres; they studied trends in style, diversity in the charts, and more. And the results of their ‘big data analysis’ are extremely illuminating.
For one, they identified three major revolutions in pop music over the last 50 years, happening in 1964 (associated with Vietnam-war disillusionment and the invasion of British Bands - The Beatles, The Stones, et al.), 1983 (driven by new synthesiser technology), and 1991 (when rap and hip-hop went mainstream); the researchers cited the third revolution (i.e. the rap and hip-hop one) as the biggest and most influential of the three. They traced the introduction of minor seventh chords into the mainstream (courtesy of funk, soul, and disco in the 1970s), and the gradual death of dominant sevenths (usually associated with jazz and blues). They even disproved the common claim that music is getting more “samey” - turns out there’s no less diversity in the charts today than there was fifty years ago (1986 turned out to be the year with the least diversity in the chart-topping hits!).
I’m impressed by their efforts to study quantitatively the evolution of popular music. Now I’m just waiting for an analysis that proves for once and for all that Radiohead is (obviously) the greatest and most important band of our time!
Their conclusion, paraphrased, is that although the British did not start the revolution, they were perhaps its Bolsheviks—pushing it to a conclusion it would otherwise not have reached. Signs of change are perceptible before the Beatles and the Stones arrive on the scene. But when they do arrive, they bring with them styles characteristic of the subsequent era: styles that other bands took time to adopt.