Researchers in London used a new computer program to analyze the evolution of popular music by feeding it thousands of songs from the past 55 years.
Their biggest discovery: the Eighties were pretty boring.
That will be surprising news to guitar fans, who count the decade as one of the best for the instrument. It was in the Eighties, after all, that we saw the rise of acts like Van Halen, Mötley Crüe, Metallica, and Guns N’ Roses, not to mention continuing efforts from Seventies stalwarts like Queen, AC/DC, ZZ Top and Rush. The Eighties also gave us virtuoso players like Yngwie Malmsteen, Steve Vai and Joe Satriani, to name a few.
But the study was looking for diversity of styles. In fact, it found that 1983 was actually a landmark year for innovative styles and variety. The year was dominated by guitar-heavy arena rock (Van Halen, Mötley Crüe), aggressive synthesized percussion (Phil Collins), new wave pop (the Police) and dance pop (Madonna).
But these styles pushed out competing genres, including country and folk. As a result, by the decade’s middle-to-late period, pop music was at its most homogenous period of the past 50 years and did not change until the emergence of rap and hip-hop.
“Put in terms of styles, the decline of diversity is due to the dominance of genres such as new wave, disco, hard rock,” write the researchers. “Its recovery is due to their waning with the rise of rap and related genres.”
The London-based research team based its findings on songs that appeared on Billboard’s Hot-100 list dating back to 1960. The team downloaded nearly every song on the list—close to 17,000 tracks—and let its computer program scan each song for harmony and timbre.
The results allowed the researchers to see when certain instruments and chords became fashionable and dominated music, as well as when they faded from popularity.
For example, dominant seventh chords appeared in much pop music of the Sixties, then declined in use as minor chords came to prominence in hard rock and metal as well as soul and funk.
In addition, loud guitar music peaked in 1966 (hello, Jimi!) and again in 1985 as the instrument enjoyed another surge of popularity.
By creating a “fossil record” of each song, the program was able to chart the evolution of pop music in terms of musical content, allowing researchers to study each period in terms of its musical diversity.
Overall, the study shows that, even with the Eighties lull, pop’s musical diversity hasn’t dropped sharply, even though many critics like to say it’s nowhere near as good as it used to be.