In Defense of Popular Music: Why Reports of its Death are Greatly Exaggerated

The internet has been abuzz recently with reports of the deterioration in quality of music. Of particular note: a recent Spanish study which purportedly proved it, scientifically no less.

We want to set the record straight about pop. In this article we’ll respond to some of the common complaints that are being made about popular music and show that, in reality, things just aren’t all that bad.

The Complaint: Popular Music is Getting Louder

The issue, pointed out by the Spanish group in their study, is that over the years popular music has found itself engaged in a loudness war in which songs are getting louder and more obnoxious. The insinuation here, I suppose, is that current music is becoming no better than those annoying commercials that always seem louder than the actual TV program.

In many ways, however, this particular complaint is misplaced. The perceived loudness is, at least partly, an artifact of techniques that smart sound engineers have learned to use to make music sound more full and easier to hear under different listening conditions. Have you ever tried to listen to classical music in a car costing less than $50,000? Well I have, and my Honda Civic and I think it sounds terrible. One reason is the range of dynamics that exist. At the risk of stating the obvious: when classical music gets quiet, it becomes increasingly difficult to hear.

And yet, popular music seemingly also has lots of dynamic range, and I hear it just fine.

Listen to the transition from the verse to the chorus in Kelly Clarkson’s Since You’ve Been Gone. I use this song as an example because it’s often put out as exhibit A of terrible, manufactured music (though as unpopular as it seems to be amongst music geeks, you guys sure search for it a lot in our Song Analysis Database).

[hooktheory htid=”5JaYr7zsTxIB” showmelody=”true” showromannumeralsonstart=”false” youtubeid=”R-ArDGOLpm4″ ]

I don’t think anyone would argue that there is quite a bit of difference in energy between the beginning of the intro and the chorus. And yet, if we plot the sound amplitude of this song as a function of time, it looks fairly constant. There’s quite a lot of sound everywhere.

When you compare this to a classical recording, it’s obvious why I struggle to hear parts of my favorite classical songs yet have no difficulty at all hearing pop. This following sound amplitude plot is from Beethoven’s 5th Symphony:

Modern recording techniques and technology make it possible to listen to music that sounds both loud and soft yet can still be heard driving 75 on the highway. The technique is called “Dynamic Range Compression”, and it’s definitely true that it can be overused (sometimes to comic effect). We’ll talk more about this in a future post. But while it’s true that the average loudness is getting technically higher, some of this is just a result of innovation in sound engineering and a reflection of the variety of listening environments in which we consume music. Besides, if you think a song is too loud, just use the volume knob. That’s what it’s there for.

Complaint: Popular music is all about image and money. It’s not about the music anymore

Yes, modern music is a lot about image. Yes, there is a lot of sex, money, and power involved. But let’s not pretend that this hasn’t always been the case.

Why did Romantic composer Franz Liszt write Hungarian Rhapsody?

[hooktheory htid=”qk9gkKz8P-Rz” showmelody=”false” showromannumeralsonstart=”false” youtubeid=”-qpKm_NXNtk”]

As New York Times Columnist Johanna Keller put it:

“Here’s the man: a strutting, manipulative, priapic rock star for the Romantics, with a sexual magnetism that set off what the poet Heinrich Heine dubbed Lisztomania, a condition in which swooning female fans collected his cigar butts to secrete in their cleavages.”

And I thought Beatlemania was bad.

Before the days of Twitter and reality TV, composers did the best with what was available. They wrote intentionally impossible sounding pieces so that women would sleep with them (Liszt, most famously); and they cozied up to rich kings and hung out in their courts and other centers of power (pretty much all of them).

Mozart’s parents traipsed him around Europe showing off their little 7 year old’s piano playing. Afterwards he started hanging out in the courts of any archbiship or prince that would have him. If he were alive today, I bet he’d have his own reality television show.

The fact of the matter is, musicians have always whored themselves out for money and fame. It’s just more visible now.

Complaint: Pop music is becoming less complex and dumbed down

Yes, a lot of music these days uses the same 4 chords (sometimes in the same order):

the following songs are, in order:
1. Don’t Stop Believing by Journey
2. Let It Be by the Beatles
3. She Will Be Loved by Maroon 5
4. Edge of Glory by Lady Gaga

[hooktheory htid=”zlh09cERjLmN” showmelody=”false” showromannumeralsonstart=”false” youtubeid=”wxbWOO1l3HA”]

But a lot of Classical music does the same thing! Listen to this section of Eine Kleine Nacht Musik. It only uses 2 chords!:

[hooktheory htid=”aNtaa76mPRLe” showmelody=”true” showromannumeralsonstart=”false” youtubeid=”RwFgPTTShr0″]

This is a prime example of why it’s dangerous to assume a lack of harmonic complexity automatically means “dumbed down” (unless you think Lady Gaga is twice as innovative as Mozart).

On the other hand, pop music is often anything but simplistic. The image of the musically inept simpleton churning out hits with his buddies is funny…

“D Minor is the saddest of all keys, I find.”
…but it doesn’t mesh with reality. This NPR report on the making of a Rihanna Song sums up how the modern hit is produced pretty well.

The tldnr; version: They lock a couple dozen highly trained professional composers in a room for a week and have them fight it out. Then use what sounds the best.
As you can imagine this isn’t cheap.

The fact of the matter is there are a lot of really smart people writing pop music these days, more so than ever; and the result of this professionalism has been more complexity, not less.

Listen and follow along with the chords to Sarah Bareille’s Gravity

[hooktheory htid=”bk7dnDBZM–f” showmelody=”true” showromannumeralsonstart=”false” youtubeid=”UiV0ITZ3Qi4″]

People have been complaining about the deterioration of music for hundreds of years. My feeling: reports of its death are greatly exaggerated.

  • Nick

    awesome article guys. Keep up the good work

  • Alan Hu

    Great article!

  • malexis

    The article acknowledges that music is louder now and surmises that this is an improvement? It doesn’t mention that in order to accomplish this the dynamic range is compressed which, in my opinion, affects overall sound quality.

    Also, so much of what is stated regarding the quality of popular music is opinion–which is fine, as music is completely subjective. Personally I do not care for the euro-disco, auto-tuned pop and ringtone-rap that is so pervasive nowadays. I mean, how do you explain the Black Eyed Peas?

  • foljs

    Nothing –or almost nothing– said about the cultural and artistic aspects of music, which goes to show that it’s death is probably more real than this counter-argument.

    Yes, popular music IS getting louder due to over-compression. That you see it as OK, in order to be able to listen to it comfortably in your car, means it’s less about the music and more about your convenience. With this, music is relegated to something to listen to while driving.

    Furthermore, music doesn’t hold the imagination and the collective attention of people as it did until around the eighties or mid-nineties. With MTV first, instant availability in mp3 form second, YouTube then, music plays an all the more peripheral cultural role for young people. The connect less with it, and go from artist to artist with ADD-like attention span. Computer games are probably bigger than music nowadays.

    I don’t claim that there is not good music around. There is, and in large quantities, from Dylan-line songwriters to electronic soundscape artists. But making music be:

    1) a 24/7 presence,
    2) immediately obtainable in whatever quantity (downloads),
    3) connected to images (MTV, YouTube, American Idol, The Voice, etc)
    4) listened in isolation (from the walkman to the iPods)
    5) lose the exclusivity mystery (everyone can have access to a “soft studio” and release stuff)

    it has cheapened and lost a lot as an artistic/cultural form.

    • rick

      I agree with a lot of this. What you are missing is that your 1-5 step process was happening 100 years ago as well, it’s nothing new, it’s all relative to the age/time. Consider the paradigm shifts 100 years ago plugged into your theory:

      1) a 24/7 presence, Um, this happened when radio was invented! 24/7 music has been happening for generations dudes.
      2) immediately obtainable in whatever quantity (downloads),100 years ago music became immediately obtainable in whatever quantity, RELATIVE to its availability 100 years before that (sheet music.)
      3) connected to images (MTV, YouTube, American Idol, The Voice, etc)Music added to movies and theatre was also revolutionary in its day, and some thought, as you do, that it cheapened it, that it mean that it “lost a lot as an artistic/cultural form.” (Vaudville, Music Theatre, Tin Pan Alley, American Bandstand, etc)
      4) listened in isolation (from the walkman to the iPods)Again, the innovation of mass produced sheet music allowed people to listen to their favorite tunes away from actual performances! Scandalous! (Also what’s the difference between the invention of iPods and Gramophones? They’re both just music players you can listen to by yourself or with your friends.)
      5) lose the exclusivity mystery (everyone can have access to a “soft studio” and release stuff)

      Consider what happened when the concept of public “Music Education” was invented–talk about your “exclusivity mystery!” I’m sure all the music guilds were horrified by the thought of all these school children having easy access to instruments. (Those kids could now release stuff all right, super crappy renditions of Mozart and Beethoven…)

      The more things change, the more they stay the same.

      Never pine for the “good old days” when music was more cultural and artistic. Today is the “good old days” of fifty years from now. We just don’t know it yet because time hasn’t filtered our the classics from the crap yet!

    • http://www.facebook.com/cjsmusic C.J. Smith

      “music is relegated to something to listen to while driving.” Not at all! Music has been promoted to something you can listen to more frequently. Any way that you used to be able to hear music, you still can.

      Music not holding “the imagination and the collective attention of people” I don’t think is the music’s fault… I think people just have less focus. Also, if it were today’s music that were the problem, then older music should still hold the imagination and attention of people, but it seems to do that for young people even less than pop music.

      And then what rick said :)

  • rick

    FYI

    I just spent 15 minutes responding to foljs’s post and 4 of the 5 music examples haven’t loaded yet. only the “1. Don’t Stop Believing by Journey2. Let It Be by the Beatles
    3. She Will Be Loved by Maroon 5
    4. Edge of Glory by Lady Gaga”

    one seems to be working…

    • http://www.hooktheory.com/ Dave

      try reloading the page. Sometimes there is a hickup with the connection to the youtube stream and nothing gets loaded.

  • Mickey Mondegreen

    Loud fast rules, as we used to say. People who gripe about how “music sucks nowadays” are either old and in the way, or just TBIT (typical bitchy internet trolls.) Great site, by the way!

  • GM

    I appreciate the time you put into this article but I have to completely disagree with you.

    Just the fact that so many people are complaining about how poor music is nowadays is reason enough for it to be true. Anyone who disagrees is just someone who is easily pleased. The rest of us treasure quality and we know it when we hear it.

    You can argue that there’s some good bands or singers out there nowadays and to an extent you are right. But there is nowhere near the quality or quantity that there once was and this is no coincidence. The music industry is just making a cheap, easy-to-reproduce product that can be sold to the masses. They sign artists/bands who all sound alike because it gives them a greater chance for a positive return on their investment when introducing a new product (singer/band) to their customer base.

    The music people are gone from the industry and have been replaced with bean counters and the music has suffered because of it.

    • http://www.facebook.com/cjsmusic C.J. Smith

      Lots of classical music (that is considered great by current classical musicians) was taunted by some of the people of those days as being poor music, so that is not reason enough.

  • Wladyslas

    This site really amazed me, and this article is really good either..

    But don’t you think that the people making music nowadays are only re-using old patterns and destroying the “soul” of chords ?

    Can’t we also notice lesser vocal complexity (due to auto tune and 2-word sentences) ?

    If it’s all about dynamic range and listening to music in your car, music is only becoming a product, not a piece of art like it should be (i’m not talking about advertisement here).

    For instance, have you ever heard this : https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=__HeE6NWmDE

    Anyway, i love the way this site is built, it’s a good place to share impressions about music and even make music and collaborate with each others, I do hope this starting community won’t die.

    (I do apologize for the mistakes, I come from France)

    • Adam Deb

      That song is literally a joke. It’s an invalid example. But, pertaining to the rest of your comment, it takes a lot of discipline to write a simple song. A lot of hardcore bands use unnecessary chords and licks to show off, but it doesn’t sound catchy.

  • http://www.facebook.com/adam.misrahi Adam Misrahi

    I agree with the author on a lot of this. People seem to forget how bad the majority of music was in 70s, how incredibly formulaic the stuff we’ve forgotten from the 60s, the bland synth-pop yuppie obsession in the 80s, etc..

    However, I think he/she is seriously mistaken on the subject of dynamic range.

    With the comment “then just turn your volume control down” he/she misses the point of what’s being complained about.

    It’s true that engineers and producers have indeed got better at giving the impression of dynamic range when it’s not really there. It’s also true that loud and distorted often sounds better and more exciting on first listen. The distortion also makes the mix engineer’s job easier by making it gel better and feel like everything’s working together.

    The Kelly Clarkson is indeed a great example of the illusion of dynamics. The trouble is that the main tool used is distortion and in excess. When that chorus kicks in, yes it’s powerful and fun and the distortion helps that. But it’s too much. I challenge you to listen to that song happily 3 times over on headphones. Now try to do the same with something like Whole Lotta Love by Led Zeppelin. Despite that band’s reputation as “heavy” this is much lighter on the ear whilst being very powerful. You can repeat listen and will be able to turn it up objectively way louder than Kelly before it gets unpleasant.

    The modern level of distortion has a biologically proven effect on physical listening fatigue – muscles attached to the anvil and stirrup in the inner ear seize up in an effort to protect your hearing – and a behaviourally proven effect on psychological listening fatigue – non-regular waveforms simulate audio situations associated with danger, e.g. a fight, and so after being exciting, will leave you uneasy if prolonged plus distorted sounds tend toward similarity and so make music sound monotonous and boring.

    I’ve mixed music for myself and others and I can guarantee that if there were less distortion between the cymbals and guitars and instead, the Kelly’sverse were about 2-3db quieter, the apparent power of chorus would have doubled. It could have been a memorable moments. Dramatic moments like that make an emotional connection with a listener. They brand themselves on you and you come back for them. They’re what addict you to a song. Very little music made 5-10 years ago is treated as classic and still played often whereas a lot more from 20-25 or 30-25 years ago is.

    Interestingly, there’s growing empirical evidence for this. I can’t find the original but this is from the write up version of this powerpoint:

    http://www.sfxmachine.com/docs/loudnesswar/loudness_war_slides_800x600.pdf

    “In the Evergreen project, Johnson visually analyzed
    spectrograms from a number of the most commercially
    important albums of the last few decades and found that
    “the more strongly they sell, the more likely it is that
    they will have High Contrast characteristics,” i.e., a
    wide dynamic range. Speaking of the album The Eagles
    Greatest Hits 1971-1975, he wrote that it’s “gratifying,
    but unsurprising, to discover that the single most
    commercially important album in RIAA history
    contains some of the most striking dynamic contrasts
    pop music’s ever seen…. people want dynamic
    contrasts.” ”

    The other thing the Evergreen project found that there were so many examples of this it added up to a numerical correlation between dynamic range and commercial lifespan. So, another example was Fleetwood Mac’s Rumours which has productions that simply couldn’t sound so warm and gorgeous without the amount of dynamic range they have.

    An example from the other end of the spectrum: Whatever happened to What’s The Story Morning Glory by Oasis? Hailed as a classic with strong sales for a few years at least in Europe. Has since fallen off a cliff because it’s so loud and harsh and thus you don’t pick it out to feel good. It’s a sonic disservice to some decent songs that will hopefully live on round quieter campfires.

    In short, the problem is not being too loud but the compromises made to make it so loud.

    • http://www.hooktheory.com/ Dave

      Adam, thanks for the thoughtful analysis. I definitely agree that many songs over use dynamic compression and distortion for my tastes. Of course, one could argue that those are just my tastes.

      Distortion is nothing more than a different timbre resulting from the addition of a bunch of higher order harmonics due to the electronic clipping of the original sound. I’m no philosopher, but attaching value to different timbres by saying that one is intrinsically better than the other isn’t something I’m prepared to do.

      On the other hand, you do a great job describing by some people fine distortion off-putting!

  • chelsea

    I agree it’s difficult to say that a song is bad because
    it’s loud. The dynamic of the sound is an art in itself. I also agree that the
    way an artist chooses to conduct their life has nothing to do with their musical
    talent. It was interesting to learn that composer’s enjoyed the same lifestyle
    as many famous artists in today’s generation.

  • saintsaens

    My mind is officially changed.

  • J

    In my opinion pop music is the most popular because it’s the genre that takes the least amount of musical risk and is made for people who just like to have it in the background while they’re driving and who have a relatively passive approach to the experience of listening to music, the only reason it’s getting more harmonically complex is that the average person nowadays has had much more exposure to music than the average person 60 years ago to the point where everybody has already gotten bored of these simple classical chord progressions by the time they finish nursery school.

    But if you listen to popular radio stations there’s often more talking and advertising than music being played (which reflects where the interests of the industry itself lie). The only people listening to these stations are people who consider their time spent listening to music cheap enough to not mind losing it to advertisements and weather reports.

    • DrGonzo71

      I wish I read this before I made my post above. Well said, and insightful.

  • http://www.facebook.com/cjsmusic C.J. Smith

    Thanks for adding the songs from my other comment. Searching for one on this page, Gravity, comes up with the song, but will never really load.

  • Dzhershk

    You make a lot of valid points, but pop music is still mostly shit

  • DrGonzo71

    I’m not convinced. If anything, all the Lady Gaga / Mozart example proves to me is that theoretically correct harmonic complexity does not equate to powerful music with heart and soul. Not to diss on Lady Gaga, for whom I have an atypical (given my musical tastes) appreciation. It also raises the question, if Rhianna is such a great musician, why does she need songwriters to write all her material? It seems to me that automatically distances the musician from the piece, which would make it difficult for the musician to have real passion about that piece.
    When I was younger, I listened to pretty much anything: Metal, classic rock, hip hop, r&b, and of course pop. Over the years, I picked up appreciation for classical, jazz, and the blues. Never cared much for pop-country, as it just seems to manufactured for my taste.
    My tastes in music have changed, as they do for most people as they get older. I don’t listen to too much metal anymore. I don’t hate it, it just doesn’t speak to me as much as when I was an angsty lad. With very few exceptions, I think hip-hop is rubbish. Classic rock, however, and modern bands influenced by classic rock (Radiohead, anyone?) still rank among my favorites. Pop music, on the other hand, I CAN’T STAND. I hate it with a fervent passion.
    How do I define pop music, then? Music that is manufactured, primarily: manufactured to sell the greatest number of copies to the greatest number of people who basically use music to cut the silence. Or something. I really don’t get people who get pop music.
    My point? Music is like any human endeavour. If you handcraft it yourself with passion and soul, then you’ll make masterpieces. You can’t fake that. If you’re just borrowing someone else’s ideas to make a buck, well, you’ll probably just end up annoying a bunch of people who have good musical taste while you’re getting rich, no matter how harmonically complex your work is.
    Of course good music follows rules ( And bends them. And breaks them completely.), but the artist needs to own his or her work, believe in it, not engineer and manufacture it.

    • C.J. Smith

      You don’t have to be a good songwriter to be a great musician. At the same time, there’s no reason why even if you are that you can’t look to songs other people write, especially if you are busy, or if you think they can write a better song than you can. In fact, a great musician would better be able to recognize that, hey, this person writing the song for me is going to result in a better song even if I sing both of them. There’s no reason you can’t connect with somebody else’s ideas.

  • Andi

    It seems the article doesn’t understand the loudness war issue at all. You can’t restore transients by turning the volume down.