Big Data has the ability to provide powerful insights about the world around us. And now, thanks to some brilliant British researchers, Big Data has settled one of the biggest debates in a generation: Early 80s music was lousy.
The era of big-hair bands and synth music, of Duran Duran and Flock of Seagulls, the early 1980s represented a moment when popular music became more homogenous than at almost any other point in 50 years. This was among the many findings in a study published in the Royal Society Open Science journal earlier this year: The evolution of popular music: USA 1960–2010.
“Put in terms of styles, the decline of diversity is due to the dominance of genres such as NEW WAVE, DISCO, HARDROCK,” the study’s authors wrote.
So, how did the data scientists use Big Data for their study? The team wrote an algorithm that analyzed every song that appeared on Billboard’s Hot-100 list between 1960 and 2000. That’s more than 17,000 songs. They dissected each song into different components, such as harmony and chords and timbre. There were 26 categories in total.
It’s a fun study and topic, of course, and very readable if you want to take a deeper dive. But on a more serious note, it demonstrates how Big Data has the potential to help quantify things like culture that are have been considered to be mainly subjective.
“Until recently, the single greatest impediment to a scientific account of musical history has been a want of data,” the authors wrote. “That has changed with the emergence of large, digitized collections of audio recordings, musical scores and lyrics.”
In this case, the authors’ larger takeaway is that rather than changing gradually over time, popular music made particular stylistic leaps at certain points.
“We show that, although pop music has evolved continuously, it did so with particular rapidity during three stylistic ‘revolutions’ around 1964, 1983 and 1991,” the study says. “We conclude by discussing how our study points the way to a quantitative science of cultural change.”
But in the case of the 80s, to give the decade its due, the year 1983 did represent one of those big “revolutions” as synthesizers and drum machines became fashionable. The problem was that they became so widespread in their use (according to the data!) that a large chunk of popular music started to sound the same, and thus, dull.
Eventually, music in that decade began to diversify as Rap and Hip Hop were embraced by mainstream audiences. By the early 1990s, the data shows a decline in some of the characteristics that defined things like New Wave.
To use the words of the researchers, “The reign of the drum machine was over.”
Image credit: Ingrid Richter