Popular Music Changed the Most in 1964

Scientists use genomic data to show how pop music evolves

Man Playing Guitar
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Evolution and popular music seem to go hand in hand—after all, musical trends are in a state of almost constant flux. But given that most analysis of popular music relies on anecdote and opinion, how can we prove that music really evolves? A team of London scientists has the answer—and their work with genomic musical data has revealed three historical revolutions in pop music.

The Physics arXiv Blog reports on a new study in which researchers decided to use data analysis methods common in genomic research to understand musical trends. They analyzed 30-second clips of over 17,000 hit songs from 1960 to 2010 and placed each tune in one of eight different categories based on their harmonics and timbre. Next, the team used an algorithm to segment the music into groups and analyzed how each group changed over time.

What they learned goes against the mythology of how popular music has evolved. For example, contrary to claims that pop music has become boring, the researchers found that chart-topping music didn’t become more homogenous over time. And though they discovered three periods of “stylistic revolution” in 1964, 1983 and 1991, they also found that music changes pretty much constantly.

If the year 1964 strikes you as familiar, it might be because you associate it with Beatlemania. So did the British Invasion lead to the great pop revolution of 1964? Not so fast, the scientists warn:

Another question hotly debated by music commentators is how British bands such as the Beatles and The Rolling Stones influenced the American music scene in the early 1960s. Mauch and co are emphatic in their conclusion. “The British did not start the American revolution of 1964,” they say.

The team say the data clearly shows the revolution underway before The Beatles arrived in the States in 1964. However, British bands certainly rode the wave and played an important part in the way the revolution occurred.

As scientists find new ways to use genomic data analysis to study music, other researchers are finding answers about musical trends in the health histories of great composers. Earlier this year, a group of medical and musical researchers theorized that Beethoven’s music could show the composer had an irregular heartbeat—which may in turn have influenced his sense of rhythm.

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