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Darwin Meets Devo: The Continuing Evolution of Pop Music

New research pinpoints three years of particularly rapid change.
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Devo in Atlanta, Georgia, on December 27, 1978. (Photo: Malcolm Riviera/Wikimedia Commons)

Devo in Atlanta, Georgia, on December 27, 1978. (Photo: Malcolm Riviera/Wikimedia Commons)

Is pop music gradually becoming more homogenized? That was the tentative conclusion of a 2012 study, which confirmed the fears of some fans that a corporate-controlled industry is stifling creativity.

But newly published research comes to a very different conclusion. A multifaceted examination of the musical properties of hit songs from 1960 to 2010 concludes that pop is, in fact, continually evolving.

This process occurred “with particular rapidity during three stylistic ‘revolutions’ around 1964, 1983, and 1991,” writes a research team led by Matthias Mauch of Queen Mary University of London. Those years mark the mainstreaming of soul-influence rock, new wave and disco, and rap and hip-hop, respectively.

The Beatles and the Rolling Stones were "ahead of the curve," anticipating the trajectory of musical changes and helping shape it, due to their enormous influence.

The researchers call the dominance of rap and related genres “the single most important event that has shaped the musical structure of the American charts” over the 50-year period they studied. It seems the Beatles’ influence is overrated, while Grandmaster Flash’s is probably under-appreciated.

The researchers analyzed 30-second snippets of 12,094 songs that appeared on Billboard’s “Hot 100” chart (about 86 percent of the total). They focused on classes of chord changes and the increasing or decreasing use of particular timbres, such as “drugs, aggressive, percussive” and “female voice, melodic, vocal.”

One feature they consistently found through the decades was “major chords without changes,” which turned up frequently in nearly two-thirds of the songs they studied. No surprise there: For pop hits, simplicity is often a selling point.

But, as they write in the journal Royal Society Open Science, other elements have waxed and waned in popularity over the years. Notably, the use of dominant seventh chords, which are commonly used in jazz and blues, declined by about 75 percent between 1960 and 2009. It was a relatively short hop from George Gershwin to Benny Goodman, or the Beatles to the blues; in contrast, pop and jazz today speak very different musical languages.

This helps explain why so many young people today are dismissive of jazz. Since the pop they listen to has lost all connection with the Ellington-Armstrong tradition, they have no feel for the music, and no natural way into appreciating its intricacies.

Speaking of the Beatles, this research suggests the popular notion that the “British invasion” of the mid-1960s fundamentally changed pop isn’t quite right. Mauch and his colleagues find the stylistic changes so familiar to us from the songs of that era were already underway in the U.S. in 1964, the year John, Paul, George, and Ringo conquered the States.

In some ways, they write, the Beatles and the Rolling Stones were “ahead of the curve,” anticipating the trajectory of musical changes and helping shape it, due to their enormous influence. But the big shift in sound was happening before their famous appearance on the Ed Sullivan show, “implying that, while the British may have contributed to this revolution, they could not have been entirely responsible for it.”

The researchers do not address the causes of the shifts they document; that, they note, would require “an account of how musicians imitate, and modify, existing music when creating new songs.” While that’s a complex and often obscure process (as a recent court battle makes clear), their work shows that the traditional dynamic of artists building on the past to create something fresh remains firmly in place.

Findings is a daily column by Pacific Standard staff writer Tom Jacobs, who scours the psychological-research journals to discover new insights into human behavior, ranging from the origins of our political beliefs to the cultivation of creativity.