July 22, 2024

“Won’t you play a simple melody,” sang Bing Crosby in his version of the Irving Berlin classic. Now it seems that his wish has come true: research has revealed that the tunes of modern chart-toppers are less complex than those of the past.

Scientists say the change can be – at least in part – due to the emergence of new genres over the decades, such as stadium rock, disco and hip-hop.

However, Madeline Hamilton, a co-author of the research from Queen Mary University of London, said the results do not mean music is dumb.

“My guess is that other aspects of music are becoming more complex and melodies are becoming simpler as a way to compensate,” Hamilton said, noting that while music in earlier decades was made with a handful of instruments — meaning that complexity tends to wash through vocals – modern tracks involved a lot of layers and sound textures.

Write in the journal Scientific ReportsHamilton and her co-author Dr Marcus Pearce describe how they studied songs that placed in the top five of the US Billboard year-end singles chart each year between 1950 and 2022. These included Heartbreak Hotel by Elvis Presley, Hey Jude by the Beatles , Vogue by Madonna, Poker Face by Lady Gaga and Irreplaceable by Beyoncé.

They then analyzed eight features related to the pitch and rhythmic structure of the melodies. The results revealed that the average complexity of melodies has declined over time, with two major drops in 1975 and 2000, as well as a smaller drop in 1996.

Hamilton said one explanation was the rise of different genres of music, with the first decline occurring around the time stadium rock and disco music became popular.

“The [drop] around the year 2000 [is] probably at least partially due to the rise of hip-hop because those melodies are very distinct. They’re usually very simple melodies,” Hamilton said.

The smaller decline around 1996, she added, could also be linked to hip-hop, although another possible influence was the rise of the digital audio workstationmaking it easy to loop sections and phrases within songs.

“We think this could lead to an increase in repetition in the melodies,” she said.

But changes to melodies don’t necessarily reflect the full picture. The analysis revealed that chart-toppers showed an increase in note density – in other words, the number of notes sung per second – especially since the year 2000.

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“If you have a melody [with a] many notes per second, that kind of limits how complex [the melody] can be,” Hamilton said. “If you sing slower, you can sing more unexpected pitches, or you can do bigger jumps and things.”

The team said other studies found no sign of a decline in the timbre or harmony of music over the 50 years since 1960. And while “revolutions” in popular music have been identified before, their timing varies — something Hamilton and colleagues say may be down to other work that focuses on different characteristics of music, and the fact that the new study only looked at chart-toppers.

Hamilton said she is expanding her analysis to include other aspects of music: “Right now we’re looking at chords. We also want to expand our analysis to include more songs, to see if this trend [for melodies] stop for a bigger set of music.”

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