If you were asked what the most influential type of music is, what would you say? Jazz? Rock? Classical?
Well, if you thought any of those were correct, you’d be wrong, according to a group of researched from the Centre for Digital Music at Queen Mary’s University in London.
Dr. Matthias Mauch of the Royal Academy of Engineering Research, is a fellow with the Centre and part of the team that analyzed more than 17,000 recordings from Billboard‘s music charts between 1960 and 2010.
“We can actually measure the music. We have signal processing techniques and we can use those to look at the signal of the recordings.”
Mauch says music provides a wealth of opportunities for scientific analysis.
“You can look at melody, rhythm, harmony. We looked at harmony – we wanted to try and understand how chord changes developed over time. And we also looked at timbre – that’s like the sound colour. Probably best understood as the mood of the music.”
Different years, different chords
Mauch and his colleagues have made some interesting discoveries about how popular music has changed across the decades.
For instance, dominant seventh chords, frequently found in jazz and blues as well as Elvis-style classic rock, were very popular in 1960 but they had nearly disappeared by 1975. They were replaced by minor sevenths prevalent in disco and funk music, which were exploding in popularity in the mid-70s. The prevalence of minor seventh chords doubled during that decade.
Listen to the full interview here:
According to Mauch, between 1960 and 2010, there were some specific periods that brought big changes.
“We were looking at the speed of change in the charts. The 3 times where the charts changed most quickly: 64, 83 and 91.”
1964 was, of course, the height of Beatlemania and the British Invasion. Bands like the Beatles and the Rolling Stones, ushered in a new era of rock and roll, one that relied less on blues and featured more straight major chords.
1983 saw a huge increase in the use of percussion in music and Mauch and his colleagues think they know why.
“We’re quite confident this is due to the introduction of samplers and synthesizers and drum machines. Suddenly, musicians had all of these new technologies at hand and could use them and did.”
The 80s also saw the rise of stadium rock, which relied heavily on much of the new technology.
But the single biggest period of change began in 1991 with the arrival of hip hop. Mauch says one specific aspect of popular music shifted dramatically at that time.
“The huge change we see in 91 is harmonic change. Previously, different genres used different harmonic combinations and chords. But what happened now there was a new breed of music that almost rejected harmony altogether and focused on speech and rhythm, pushing harmony into the background.”
Based on their findings, Mauch and his fellow researchers believe hip hop to be the single most influential genre of music.
Of course, the study’s conclusions have caused some controversy. Mauch says many people object to the scientific study of music, believing it to be an emotional, ethereal form of art. And while there’s been plenty of debate about the study’s findings, Mauch says
“The main thing I’ve perceived is that people are endlessly fascinated [with music]”
When asked about hip hop’s sometimes shady reputation and the fact that it often draws criticism from the media:
“I have no sense that, in this age, hip hop is looked down upon. It still gets respect and it’s still hugely popular.”
Of course it is – it’s the most influential genre of music, after all.
With files from Shannon Waters