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The most influential pop-music genre? Science makes a ruling

Ch-ch-ch-ch-changes. A computer analysis of pop hits spanning 1960 to 2010 identifies three turning-point years in the evolution of music. Got any guesses?

Dustin Gaffke, CC BY 2.0

Every generation has a song or band that it likes to think changed popular music. Fans from the '60s had the Beatles and the British Invasion. The '70s had disco. The '80s had, well, some interesting hairstyles that most of us would like to forget. I'm talking to you, A Flock of Seagulls.

A group of biologists and engineers from several London universities wanted to move beyond subjective taste to make data-quantified conclusions about pop music over a 50-year period. So they ran a catalog of more than 17,000 songs from 1960 to 2010 through a computer and came up with some surprising findings. They even pinpointed the genre that caused the most tectonic shift in music in a half-century. (Can you guess what it is before reading on?)

The Royal Society Open Science journal published the results of the study on Wednesday.

First, the researchers compiled an extensive catalog of popular songs from the Billboard Hot 100 charts. Then they had a computer analyze the songs' patterns over the years using 30-second samples from each song to see if it could determine the tune's musical genre based on factors like tonal quality and rhythm. Then they matched their classification with the music catalog at Last.fm. (Disclosure: Last.fm is also owned by CNET's parent company, CBS.)

Once the computer matched the songs' classifications based on genre, the researchers examined the data and discovered that they don't agree with the old adage that all pop music sounds the same. The data suggests that pop music has gone through several stylistic shifts in 50 years and the songs are more diverse than parents who yell "Turn that crap down!" to their kids might believe.

The researchers were able to pinpoint three years where significant evolutionary shifts occurred. The first happened in 1964 during the famed British Invasion of rock bands such as the Beatles, The Who and the Rolling Stones. The second occurred in 1982 with the rise of technology in dance music genres such as new wave and electronic. However, the most significant shift, by far, happened in 1991 with the hip-hop explosion, which relies on less identifiable chords and more spoken words.

These results seem to contradict a similar study conducted by the Spanish National Research Council in 2012. Then, artificial-intelligence expert Joan Serra led a study that looked at songs from 1955 to 2010 and published a report in the journal Scientific Reports that said, "Many of [music's] patterns and metrics have been consistently stable for [this] period" and that the songs' only "changes or trends related to the restriction of pitch transitions, the homogenization of the timbral palette and the growing loudness levels."

These and other studies are part of their own evolutionary trend. Evolutionary-biology professor Armand Leroi from Imperial College in London, who helped oversee the most recent study, wrote in The New York Times that "digital humanities," the effort to digitize aspects of cultural heritage, has given rise to a form of cultural scientific studies that can seek to understand changes and shifts in culture such as art, literature and music through a much more scientific lens. Another recent example includes a study from the UK that determined the 20 catchiest songs of the last 70 years.

"A comparison with biology shows what's missing," Leroi wrote. "To explain organic diversity, biologists have built a theory of evolution whose major tenets are couched in math and generally agreed. To explain cultural diversity, the humanities have offered only a succession of incommensurable interpretive fashions and uncountable particular studies, many of which, to be sure, enrich our understanding of this writer or that, but which only add texture to the tapestry of culture and do nothing to explain its whole."

Hopefully, this will lead to other studies about the influence and effect that music culture has on society. For instance, how do I get Miley Cyrus' "Wrecking Ball" out of my head once and for all? Shoot, there it is again.

(Via Los Angeles Times)