By: Abhay Rangray
Music is one of the most fascinating aspects of a nation’s culture. Music not only reflects the mores and values of a given culture but also acts as a medium for emotional expression and human exaltation. Looking at the current state of popular music however, one finds troubling trends. For a variety of reasons, popular music in America seems to be deteriorating and we, the listeners, suffer because of this decline.
Music, like all art, is ultimately subjective, and thus it becomes difficult to demonstrate that popular music is declining. If one, however, takes a more objective approach to determine the quality of music, one notices a decline in several key factors that compose the quality of a given piece of music.
One such objective methodology is lyrical quality. A recent musical analysis revealed that new songs are produced at approximately a second-grade reading level, in contrast to the level a decade ago, which was approximately at a third-grade reading level. This is a trend that will most likely continue since many Billboard top 100 songs have reading levels that are even lower than second grade. Lyrics of songs are getting worse, and it becomes challenging to convey deeper meaning if one lacks the lexicon to do so. If this decline continues, the depth to which music can explore an idea will decrease, and the content matter that the song expresses also will continue to suffer.
Yet another objective metric is overall compositional complexity. Researchers at the Spanish National Research Council decided to look at songs based on harmonic complexity, timbral diversity, and loudness. They found that popular music has decreased in the first two characteristics. Intriguingly, the music has increased in overall loudness. Music today is not nearly as complex and nuanced as it has been in the past, and this is something that is to the detriment of the listener. Musical variance can provide us with music that better suits our tastes, and excessive loudness reduces this variance. Furthermore, excess loudness can increase the chance of the listener’s attention being redirected from the core components of a song. In addition, excessive loudness makes it difficult to experience music and its complexity fully.
Lastly, the overall complexity of the message modern songs convey has decreased. We have always had simple and uncomplicated music. However, if one were to look back at the Billboard Top 100 in the 1970’s versus today, one would find that today’s music focuses far more on money, sex, and partying while the songs of the past were used to venerate individuals, speak out against societal injustice, and convey greater human ideals. As such, one can conclude that the overall intelligence and sophistication of the music that we listen to has decreased, and this is a detriment to us since great ideas are no longer being conveyed through the medium of music. Furthermore, we are not being challenged to the same extent if the content material is unchanging, and this makes it difficult for individuals to properly enjoy music.
There are several reasons for this decline in quality. Due to an increase in piracy there has been a loss of overall musical revenue. As such, desperation for hits has increased, and this has allowed for little room for unknown musicians that experiment. Furthermore, as Frank Zappa, a freeform contemporary American musician, explained, a change in the overall executive structure from executives disconnected from the popular culture to those that are connected the popular culture has resulted in drastic changes. Old executives were more willing to allow for experimentation since it was unknown to them what would and wouldn’t be successful. New executives, however, are more connected to the culture and do not allow as much experimentation in the music that is released. This is in stark contrast to executives of the past which were more open to experimentation. The overall structure in how we consume music has changed. Past music was not something that one could just listen to immediately. Due to the vinyl format, the act of listening to music required greater effort, and it was impossible to simply get to one particular song. Today, due to the rise of cell phones, computers, and streaming services, we have instant access to virtually all music. We can listen to that music as much and as often as we desire. Because music has gotten excessively non-episodic and prevalent everywhere, the overall type of music has changed. Popular music must be “hook” oriented to draw in the listener and keep them engaged for a short period. This is often at the expense of the complexity and quality of music.
All of this paints an unfortunate picture of music, and we’re right to be worried. It is unnecessary to listen exclusively to the most complicated pieces of music; everyone has their own tastes, and not everyone is going to enjoy sophisticated music. It should be noted, however, that by wanting music that does possess these characteristics, the listeners may find music that better suits our tastes and provides us with greater fulfillment.
Music is intrinsic and important because it is the background to our lives. It provokes us, changes us, and ultimately inspires us. It is very different because of all the art forms because we have intimate and personal relationships with music. We are deeply connected with music because it surrounds us and therefore its effect upon is more pronounced. There is something special about music and something that must be preserved. It is essential for modern individuals to not only understand and experience past music but actively search and support music that challenges them and speaks to them on an intimate and personal level.
Abhay Rangray is a junior in Silliman College.