Scientists Analyze the Evolution of Pop Music

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Without having to listen to thousands of songs, scientists were able to analyze music using computers. Armand Leroi, an evolutionary biologist, describes this process as similar to the way paleontologists analyze fossils in order to date them properly. He jokingly refers to the fact that there are so many songs, just as there are so many creatures.

Using songs that appeared on the Billboard Top 100, Leroi and his co-authors created a digital music library that is only 30 seconds long and encompasses over 17,000 songs between 1960 and 2010. In order to create this 30-second snippet, they cataloged songs based quantitative features that corresponded to chords and rhythms. After analyzing a song, researchers assigned it to one of 13 different styles of music based on particular patterns. Then the researchers checked how the song was actually labeled against what they cataloged the song as.

One question that researchers asked was if music styles evolve slowly or rapidly. Based on their research, they discovered that there were three periods of epidemiology evolution: 1964, 1982 and 1991. The most important of the three periods was the explosion of Hip-Hop in 1991, which could be surprising for some who might think that it would have been the year of the British invasion in 1964. They discovered that bands like the Beatles didn’t change music, they just promoted new trends, which accelerated musical changes. The authors would like to extend their study to “at least the 1940s – if only to see whether 1955 was, as many claimed, the birth of Rock n’ Roll.”

They have come to the conclusion that hit bands like the Beatles and the Rolling Stones, and stars like Michael Jackson and Madonna did not start the explosion of Pop music, which actually began with Rap in the early 1990s. They just popularized trends with their stardom.

These scientists could have easily used their intelligence and resources to analyze subjects in the humanities, however, they decided the Billboard Hot 100 was so popular that they had to do this study. They decided that it would be interesting to look at music in a scientific way.

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