First evolutionary history of 50 years of music charts using big data analysis of sounds

Credit: Wikipedia.

Evolutionary biologists and computer scientists have come together study the evolution of pop music. Their analysis of 17,000 songs from the US Billboard Hot 100 charts, 1960 to 2010, is the most substantial scientific study of the history of popular music to date.

The researchers studied trends in style, the diversity of the charts, and the timing of musical revolutions. They find that, contrary to popular belief, the so-called "British Invasion" of US pop by groups such as The Beatles and The Rolling Stones, did not start a rock revolution, but only followed existing trends. The greatest musical revolution in US pop history was also not 1964, but 1991when hip-hop arrived in the charts.

The study found that 1986 was the least diverse year for the charts, a fact the researchers attribute to the sudden popularisation of drum machines and samplers at the time. Diversity recovered after that, and while it was declining again by 2010 the scientists reject pessimistic views of chart diversity: there is no evidence for a general trend towards homogenisation in the charts.

The researchers from Queen Mary University of London and Imperial College London, with help from music website, used cutting edge methods from signal processing and text-mining to analyse the musical properties of songs. Their system automatically grouped the thousands of songs by patterns of chord changes and tone allowing researchers to statistically identify trends with an unprecedented degree of consistency.

Matthias Mauch, from the School of Electronic Engineering and Computer Science at QMUL, lead author of the paper, said:

"For the first time we can measure musical properties in recordings on a large scale. We can actually go beyond what music experts tell us, or what we know ourselves about them, by looking directly into the songs, measuring their makeup, and understanding how they have changed.

"No doubt some will disagree with our scientific approach and think it's too limited for such an emotional subject but I think we can add to the wonder of music by learning more about it. We want to analyse more music from more periods in more countries and build a comprehensive picture of how music evolves."

Professor Armand Leroi of Imperial College, senior author on the paper, said:

"It's exciting to be able to study the evolution of scientifically. But now we want to go further, and find out not just how the music has changed, but why."

Explore further

Pop music has become louder, less original: study finds

More information: 'The Evolution of Popular Music: USA 1960-2010' by Mauch, M. MacCullum, R M. Levy, M. and Leroi A M. is published by Royal Society Open Science on Wednesday 6 May 2015: rsos.royalsocietypublishing.or … /10.1098/rsos.150081 . On arxiv:
Journal information: Royal Society Open Science

Citation: First evolutionary history of 50 years of music charts using big data analysis of sounds (2015, May 5) retrieved 19 October 2019 from
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May 05, 2015
Here's a more organic version

May 06, 2015
Still, the vast majority of pop music is trash.

Most of what we now call "classical music" was also trash. You don't get to hear all the really terrible music that has been around in bygone ages because (almost) no one plays it anymore. It wasn't all Bach and Vivaldi back then.

That's just what you get when people are more interested a reason to gather together with others to seek out mates rather than appreciating music. Music has been a 'pop' phenomenon since the first guys banged on hollowed out logs to have a dance party.

May 06, 2015
Five stars for effort, but since when did the "pop charts" represent the music of any era? And would a less Americo-centric view alter what we find, I wonder?

May 06, 2015
Five stars for effort, but since when did the "pop charts" represent the music of any era? And would a less Americo-centric view alter what we find, I wonder?

They don't. The music industry has a long history of fudging the charts to sell their own artists.


Until 1991 the pop music charts were notoriously unreliable. Paying off record store employees with free albums, concert tickets and even vacations and washing machines was the standard music-business method of manipulating record sales figures. Even the Billboard magazine charts, considered the most prestigious in the business, were compiled from store managers' oral reports, which were inaccurate to begin with and easily swayed.

So, another case of garbage in, garbage out.

May 06, 2015
It wasn't until the 90's that record stores started to use point-of-sales systems to actually track record sales, so the music labels resorted to other tricks like

"Record companies have realized that you can get a record up the charts real high by giving it a sort of running start." One way in which labels accomplish this, Mr. Shalett said, is to release a single to radio and wait until it receives heavy airplay before making it available commercially.

Other ways include paying the store to put wrong barcodes on records, so one record sold registers as another, or sell 4-for-1 deals where the sales counts as four individual records, so you can tack on some lackluster recording along to a more popular recording to increase its chart position.

Or simply:

a label will load up retailers that report to Soundscan with free or discounted copies of a record. It will also send field representatives into stores to buy the album

May 06, 2015
Here's a report from 1998:


The charts have never been more ridiculous. You only have to sell 20,000 copies to get in. No one makes money out of singles; they are almost entirely for promoting albums."

The retailers disagree. (...) Yes, marketing techniques are taken to the ultimate level, but we now have a price ruling which stops singles being released for absurdly low prices and distorting the charts."

And the whole point of the article?

Lord Lloyd-Webber's mission does not derive purely from public spiritedness. He was furious that the record company multinational Polygram cut by one penny the price of the Boyzone single "No Matter What", taken from his musical Whistle Down The Wind. The cut, to pounds 1.78, after a long run at number one, put the single below the threshold for further inclusion in the charts.

One penny off a record, off the charts entirely.

May 06, 2015
How anyone can do any serious cultural studies based on charts that are entirely at the whim of the record industry is beyond me.

This is the stuff I was talking about under the Copyright related articles. Music labels dictate what music the public is exposed to, which influences what the public buys because they don't know to buy stuff they don't know exists, so the labels act as gatekeepers.

So consequently, the copyrights of the authors don't matter because they never get to cash in on their monopolies. The labels extort all the rights and all the money for letting them in the market in the first place. If you don't join, your records won't sell, because the great public will never hear or see you.

This is one reason why Copyrights should be dismantled as obsolete and harmful.

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