Danielle McCarthy


The surprising reason pop music all sounds the same these days

The surprising reason pop music all sounds the same these days

Do you ever turn on the radio to listen to some tunes, and feel like you’ve heard the same song on repeat every few minutes? Well, you’re not exactly crazy, though you might want to pay a little more attention. No, radios aren’t playing the exact same songs over and over – it just sounds that way because pop songs have become increasingly similar over time.

A 2012 study conducted by the Spanish National Research Council and led by Joan Serra found that in the past 50 years, “the diversity of transitions between note combinations – roughly speaking chords plus melodies – has consistently diminished”. The study also showed that timbre palette, which differentiates two instruments playing the same note at the same volume, is decreasing. Basically, this means that fewer sounds are being used in music, leading to a sameness of sound.

Aussie musical comedy trio The Axis of Awesome famously skewered pop music sameness in their “Four Chord Song”, which shows how countless hits (leading all the way back to The Beatles) have used the same progression of four chords. Check the video out for a catchy chuckle (bit of a language warning, though).

So why is pop music so similar, and becoming more so? Derek Thompson of The Atlantic writes about “The Shazam Effect” – named after the app that can identify any song from just a few seconds of playtime. Shazam has been used by music labels for years to identify emerging artists based on maps showing when and where people are discovering their music.

Now, with streaming services like Spotify being used by music listeners on a daily basis, music labels have teams of scouts keeping an eye on streams of songs, as well as views of videos on Facebook and YouTube, to determine which songs will be the most popular. In short, Thompson says, if pop music sounds the same to us, it’s because that’s exactly how we like it.

Recently, Harry Styles (formerly of One Direction) came to the defence of pop music and the audience most often associated with it – teenage girls. He astutely argued: “Music is something that’s always changing. There’s no goal posts. Young girls like The Beatles. You gonna tell me they’re not serious? How can you say young girls don’t get it? They’re our future. Our future doctors, lawyers, mothers, presidents”.

So if you don’t like what you hear on the radio – listen to something else. There’s no point complaining about it – if you want a new sound, you’ll have to go out there and find it. And make sure to share it on Facebook so you can one day hear it on the radio.

What’s your favourite pop song from this year?

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