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).

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?

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

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

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

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