It’s been said many times over the years that pop music all sounds the same, but now there’s new research to back up the fact that popular music, on the whole, tends to sound pretty repetitive.
While it might not be indicative of groundbreaking art, repetition and simplicity aren’t necessarily bad. In fact, listeners tend to seek a balance of familiar and new, two factors that “influence not only how we perceive popular music, but also how it is produced,” according to researchers behind the PLOS One study that examined how a genre’s musical complexity has increased or decreased over time, in relation to album sales.
A little unsurprisingly, the scientists from the Medical University of Vienna found that the more popular music was, the more generic it became – due to the artists that flock to a popular sound and the resulting drop-off of innovation that accompanies demand.
The team studied the “instrumentational complexity” of more than 500,000 albums from 1955 to 2011, across 15 genres and 374 styles, from Viking metal to Korean court music.
They analysed the use of nearly 500 instruments and found that styles which used generic instruments found in many other styles had low complexity, whereas those that used a wider selection of unusual instruments used in fewer styles had high complexity.
Although, the more interesting finding is how they looked at “complexity life cycles”. For instance, experimental, folk and folk rock all maintained high levels of complexity through each time period studied. However, soul, classic rock and funk started out with high levels of complexity but have since plummeted.
It’s also clear through these life cycles when styles come into popularity and then fade out again. For example, in different points in time, euro house, disco and pop rock all decreased in complexity, but enjoyed higher album sales, while experimental, alternative rock and hip hop became more complex and saw overall sales decline.
“This can be interpreted as music becoming increasingly formulaic in terms of instrumentation under increasing sales numbers due to a tendency to popularise music styles with low variety and musicians with similar skills,” the researchers said.
In other words, popular music all sounds the same. Something that parents have been complaining outside the bedrooms of their teenagers for generations.
Thumbnail from gettyimages.