[Hey folks, I’ve added a Commentary category to provide a place for me to write about stuff that’s been bugging me or whatever. Please enjoy or ignore, as you prefer. Comments are welcome. –KS]
A couple years ago some researchers in Spain published a paper where they used computer analysis including “artificial intelligence” to “prove” that the complexity of chords and melodies of pop music has declined steadily over the last 50 years and that the tonal palette of the instrumentation, like the vocabulary of sounds and the range of volume have declined.
The paper triggered an eruption | in | the | news | media and the | blogosphere, with a good deal of crowing by social critic/wankers because it confirmed their biases against music they automatically disliked anyway, and set them up to draw simplistic inferences about the decline of civilization and the banality of youth culture and whatnot.
Remember of course that jazz and rock and disco were considered social ills in their day (as was the waltz in its, and as rap now is) and only gained acceptance as its listeners grew up, gaining power and presence to counter the naysayers, and the people who despised it moved on to other complaints and, ultimately, died off.
While I am not going to extoll the utter excellence of the latest pop music, I assert that the reality is far more nuanced than the researchers present. First of all, there is a far larger catalog of music available to any listener today than at any other time in history. Whereas in the 1950s through the 1990s one made do mostly with at most a handful of radio stations and a personal library of vinyl, tape and, later, CDs sourced from (for most) a couple-three record stores containing a few thousand titles each. Today, 24 hours a day and seven days a week half the world can browse, audition and purchase millions of tracks at very low cost. The handful of radio stations has given way to accessing libraries of thousands of tracks in one’s pocket, hundreds of Internet radio stations, satellite radio, and innovative new delivery mechanisms such as Pandora. And the FM stations are still there too, more or less.
Also, music from unsigned artists, which used to be utterly unobtainable except for live performances and cassettes of a few bands that played near your home, has exploded, and some of it is straight-up amazing.
So we have more choice than ever, and from my own informal and unscientific observation of people in their teens and 20s, the biggest consumers of music, most of them enjoy music across several seemingly incompatible genres.
As to the tonal palette criticism, and let’s not kid ourselves, it is a criticism, it really depends on how you frame the question. Any reasonable synthesizer (including a software synthesizer running on your computer) can produces a basically unlimited number of musically interesting sounds that have never been heard before. You might say a synthesizer is an instrument that makes instruments, its tonal palette is so broad. So how do you compare that to a saxophone? (Don’t get me wrong, the saxophone can be honked with an amazing range of tonality, but so can a synth.) My point is that the question turns on how or whether synth sounds — the tonalities of instruments used — are considered. To claim that the tonal palette is decreasing when instruments of this versatility are adding sounds that have never been heard before requires not counting the uniqueness of the sounds highly. A different set of parameters given to the algorithms and they would have said well, the tonal palette has vastly increased.
Listen to some Nine Inch Nails. Not very many chord changes, not a whole ton of melody, but the textures are incredible and they could never be achieved or even approximated with traditional instruments.
And how about fidelity? They don’t talk about that but nattering nabobs of negativity aside, the average listener’s listening experience today blows away any other time in the recorded music era.
Here’s all this music, this explosion of genres, this explosion of diversity and availability, this vast increase in the tonal palette of the totality of what’s being produced and rather than reporting that, they programmed their computers to produce a result that confirmed the biases of a bunch of bleating busybodies who briefly obtain a tiny sliver of limelight by complaining about other peoples’ personal, aesthetic choices.
So I say buzz off, complainers. The amount and variety of music is larger than it ever has been, and you ain’t seen nuthin’ yet.