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The mystery of music

Gennaio 2017
Come e perché cambiano i gusti musicali? È questione di evoluzione, e non è vero che la musica è sempre uguale. Gli anni con i cambiamenti più evidenti? Il 1964, il 1983 e il 1991.

di John O’Reilly © British Council

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People have always been interested in the way pop music changes over time. Writers for music magazines have often tried to explain how and why musical tastes develop from decade to decade. Since the '70s, for example, Paul Morley has been explaining why different styles of pop music become popular one year, but then go out of fashion again. Other writers, such as Jon Savage and Simon Reynolds, have also written articles and books about changes in culture and music.


But now, researchers are starting to use computers and ideas from biology to understand these changes better. Computer scientists and evolutionary biologists from two London universities have joined up to examine the history of pop music over the last 50 years. They decided to look at the evolution of pop styles by analysing more than 17,000 songs from the US Billboard Hot 100 between 1960 and 2010.
Dr Matthias Mauch and Professor Armand Leroi first got together when they realized that they were interested in similar things. Dr Mauch was a music processing guy who was also interested in evolution, while Professor Leroi was an evolutionary biologist who liked music. When Dr Mauch saw a talk on the topic of the evolution of music, he contacted Professor Leroi. Together, they thought they could do a much better job of analysing music data using computers. They looked at different types of sounds and tunes, and at different types of pop music. They produced a graph of the changes in pop music over time.


When ordinary people talk about changes in pop music, they often say that music is becoming more homogeneous. What they mean is that pop bands all look similar and the songs all sound the same. But the scientists’ study shows this is not true. Apart from one period in the 1980s, music is just as diverse now as before. So why do ordinary people think differences in music are disappearing? One explanation is that pop music is aimed at young people. It doesn’t discuss topics that are interesting to older people, so they don’t pay much attention to it. They assume that everyone is singing about the same things in the same way.


The graph also shows that music evolved faster than normal in 1964, 1983 and 1991. Dr Mauch says he is not sure why this happened. But these dates match three important events in pop history. In 1964, The Beatles and The Rolling Stones – two very famous British bands – visited the USA for the first time. Many people were excited by this, and many bands began making music in a similar style. Secondly, in 1983, musicians began to use drum machines and other electronic equipment such as samplers and synthesizers to make music for the first time. And finally, rap and hip-hop suddenly got much more popular in the early 1990s. More studies using computers and the ideas of evolution may show that many beliefs we have about culture need to be revised.

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