In Depth

From Aretha Franklin to Jay-Z: the evolution of pop

Scientific study of pop genealogy pinpoints the three years that revolutionised music

Scientists have created an evolutionary history of pop music, analysing 17,000 songs from America's Billboard charts to identify a series of major musical breakthroughs in the 1960s, 1980s and early 1990s.

The study, conducted by researchers from Queen Mary University of London and Imperial College London, found three musical revolutions, in 1964, 1983 and 1991, and concluded that the introduction of rap music and hip hop in the early 90s was "the single most important event that has shaped the musical structure of the American charts." 

According to the BBC, the researchers – led by computer scientist Matthias Mauch –"looked at the different characteristics of music, including harmony, chords changes and timbres (the tonal quality of the music), and then analysed how they changed over time." 

By combining this data with the musical tagging system of internet radio giant Last.fm, Scientific American says the group was able to "create a musical fossil record to tease out trends about musical evolution over time. "

In the wake of the Blurred Lines court case, the work also allowed the group to look at the homogenisation of chart records and track the diversity of pop music over time. As PBS reports, the team found that "pop music mimicked how life evolved on Earth."

"Original formulations by Charles Darwin assumed a constant rate of evolution, where everything changes in small steps. That turned out to be slightly false, as 20th century biologists recognized that life on Earth is punctuated by bursts of very fast rates of evolution," Mauch said. "And it appears that pop music follows the same pattern".

The first of these "bursts of evolution" occurred in 1964 when the so-called "British Invasion" of the American charts took place. The Beatles' appearance on the Ed Sullivan show provoked mass hysteria among listeners of a certain age, but according to The Independent, "the report says the groups' musical style merely exaggerated existing trends... towards increased use of major chords and decreased use of 'bright' speech and increased guitar-driven aggression and decreased use of mellow vocals".

The second revolution came in 1983, when acts such as Dexys Midnight Runners and the Eurythmics topped the charts as "synthpop, soul and doo-wop rubbed shoulders with Lionel Richie's All Night Long, which incorporated Caribbean influences alongside funk." According to the study, the 1980s also saw the greatest homogenisation of music, with 1986 singled out by the authors as "the year chart-topping songs sounded most alike."

The last big change resulted from the transition of hip hop and rap into the mainstream in 1991. "The third revolution is the biggest," explained Mauch. "The emphasis is on speech sounds and rhythm. This was a real revolution: suddenly it was possible that you had a pop song without harmony." Typified by the rap of Freedom Williams in CC Music Factory's Gonna Make You Sweat and the work of A Tribe Called Quest, Ice Cube and Naughty by Nature, 1991 was a breakthrough year for pop music that relied on very few chords.

Phys.org says that Mauch is aware of the study's limitations. "No doubt some will disagree with our scientific approach and think it's too limited for such an emotional subject but I think we can add to the wonder of music by learning more about it," he says. "We want to analyse more music from more periods in more countries and build a comprehensive picture of how music evolves."

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