Scientific proof of a musical opinion

Jon Henschen:

Throughout grade school and high school, I was fortunate to participate in quality music programs. Our high school had a top Illinois state jazz band; I also participated in symphonic band, which gave me a greater appreciation for classical music. It wasn’t enough to just read music. You would need to sight read, meaning you are given a difficult composition to play cold, without any prior practice. Sight reading would quickly reveal how fine-tuned playing “chops” really were. In college I continued in a jazz band and also took a music theory class. The experience gave me the ability to visualize music (If you play by ear only, you will never have that same depth of understanding music construct.)

Both jazz and classical art forms require not only music literacy, but for the musician to be at the top of their game in technical proficiency, tonal quality and creativity in the case of the jazz idiom. Jazz masters like John Coltrane would practice six to nine hours a day, often cutting his practice only because his inner lower lip would be bleeding from the friction caused by his mouth piece against his gums and teeth. His ability to compose and create new styles and directions for jazz was legendary. With few exceptions such as Wes Montgomery or Chet Baker, if you couldn’t read music, you couldn’t play jazz. In the case of classical music, if you can’t read music you can’t play in an orchestra or symphonic band. Over the last 20 years, musical foundations like reading and composing music are disappearing with the percentage of people that can read music notation proficiently down to 11 percent, according to some surveys.

Two primary sources for learning to read music are school programs and at home piano lessons. Public school music programs have been in decline since the 1980’s, often with school administrations blaming budget cuts or needing to spend money on competing extracurricular programs. Prior to the 1980’s, it was common for homes to have a piano with children taking piano lessons. Even home architecture incorporated what was referred to as a “piano window” in the living room which was positioned above an upright piano to help illuminate the music. Stores dedicated to selling pianos are dwindling across the country as fewer people take up the instrument. In 1909, piano sales were at their peak when more than 364,500 were sold, but sales have plunged to between 30,000 and 40,000 annually in the US. Demand for youth sports competes with music studies, but also, fewer parents are requiring youngsters to take lessons as part of their upbringing.

Besides the decline of music literacy and participation, there has also been a decline in the quality of music which has been proven scientifically by Joan Serra, a postdoctoral scholar at the Artificial Intelligence Research Institute of the Spanish National Research Council in Barcelona. Joan and his colleagues looked at 500,000 pieces of music between 1955-2010, running songs through a complex set of algorithms examining three aspects of those songs:

1. Timbre- sound color, texture and tone quality

2. Pitch- harmonic content of the piece, including its chords, melody, and tonal arrangements

3. Loudness- volume variance adding richness and depth

The results of the study revealed that timbral variety went down over time, meaning songs are becoming more homogeneous. Translation: most pop music now sounds the same. Timbral quality peaked in the 60’s and has since dropped steadily with less diversity of instruments and recording techniques. Today’s pop music is largely the same with a combination of keyboard, drum machine and computer software greatly diminishing the creativity and originality. Pitch has also decreased, with the number of chords and different melodies declining. Pitch content has also decreased, with the number of chords and different melodies declining as musicians today are less adventurous in moving from one chord or note to another, opting for well-trod paths by their predecessors. Loudness was found to have increased by about one decibel every eight years. Music loudness has been manipulated by the use of compression. Compression boosts the volume of the quietest parts of the song so they match the loudest parts, reducing dynamic range. With everything now loud, it gives music a muddled sound, as everything has less punch and vibrancy due to compression.

In an interview, Billy Joel was asked what has made him a standout. He responded his ability to read and compose music made him unique in the music industry, which as he explained, was troubling for the industry when being musically literate makes you stand out. An astonishing amount of today’s popular music is written by two people: Lukasz Gottwald of the United States and Max Martin from Sweden, who are both responsible for dozens of songs in the top 100 charts. You can credit Max and Dr. Luke for most the hits of these stars:

Katy Perry, Britney Spears, Kelly Clarkson, Taylor Swift, Jessie J., KE$HA, Miley Cyrus, Avril Lavigne, Maroon 5, Taio Cruz, Ellie Goulding, NSYNC, Backstreet Boys, Ariana Grande, Justin Timberlake, Nick Minaj, Celine Dion, Bon Jovi, Usher, Adam Lambert, Justin Bieber, Domino, Pink, Pitbull, One Direction, Flo Rida, Paris Hilton, The Veronicas, R. Kelly, Zebrahead

With only two people writing much of what we hear, is it any wonder music sounds the same, using the same hooks, riffs and electric drum effects?

Lyric Intelligence was also studied by Joan Serra over the last 10 years using several metrics such as “Flesch Kincaid Readability Index,” which reflects how difficult a piece of text is to understand and the quality of the writing. Results showed lyric intelligence has dropped by a full grade with lyrics getting shorter, tending to repeat the same words more often. Artists that write the entirety of their own songs are very rare today. When artists like Taylor Swift claim they write their own music, it is partially true, insofar as she writes her own lyrics about her latest boyfriend breakup, but she cannot read music and lacks the ability to compose what she plays. (Don’t attack me Tay-Tay Fans!)

Music electronics are another aspect of musical decline as the many untalented people we hear on the radio can’t live without autotune. Autotune artificially stretches or slurs sounds in order to get it closer to center pitch. Many of today’s pop musicians and rappers could not survive without autotune, which has become a sort of musical training wheels. But unlike a five-year-old riding a bike, they never take the training wheels off to mature into a better musician. Dare I even bring up the subject of U2s guitarist “The Edge” who has popularized rhythmic digital delays synchronized to the tempo of the music? You could easily argue he’s more an accomplished sound engineer than a talented guitarist.

Today’s music is designed to sell, not inspire. Today’s artist is often more concerned with producing something familiar to mass audience, increasing the likelihood of commercial success (this is encouraged by music industry execs, who are notoriously risk-averse).

In the mid-1970’s, most American high schools had a choir, orchestra, symphonic band, jazz band, and music appreciation classes. Many of today’s schools limit you to a music appreciation class because it is the cheapest option. D.A. Russell wrote in the Huffington Post in an article titled, “Cancelling High School Elective, Arts and Music—So Many Reasons—So Many Lies” that music, arts and electives teachers have to face the constant threat of eliminating their courses entirely. The worst part is knowing that cancellation is almost always based on two deliberate falsehoods peddled by school administrators: 1) Cancellation is a funding issue (the big lie); 2) music and the arts are too expensive (the little lie).

The truth: Elective class periods have been usurped by standardized test prep. Administrators focus primarily on protecting their positions and the school’s status by concentrating curricula on passing the tests, rather than by helping teachers be freed up from micromanaging mandates so those same teachers can teach again in their classrooms, making test prep classes unnecessary.

What can be done? First, musical literacy should be taught in our nation’s school systems. In addition, parents should encourage their children to play an instrument because it has been proven to help in brain synapse connections, learning discipline, work ethic, and working within a team. While contact sports like football are proven brain damagers, music participation is a brain enhancer.

There was this reaction …

Sorry, it is hard to take this article seriously when it is filled with factual inaccuracies. And to be clear, I am not a “Tay-Tay fan” who is getting defensive because Taylor Swift was attacked, I am a songwriter in my fifties. That said, when you made the statement, “but she cannot read music and lacks the ability to compose what she plays”, that is untrue. Did you research this? Her 2010 album, Speak Now, was written entirely by her, both music and lyrics, and contained some of her biggest hits (“Back To December”, “Mean”, “Mine”). In addition to that, “Love Story” was a huge hit, written only by her. “Should’ve Said No”? Same. She did start to do more co-writing on her last couple of albums, but not because she “lacks the ability to compose what she plays”. Obviously this is not true.

The idea that musical sophistication has been lost, and things need to return to how they were when we were young, has been a losing argument since at least the 1950’s, when parents were outraged that Chuck Berry and Buddy Holly were having huge hits with simple three chord songs. But the kids were loving them. This article seems like the modern version of that concept.

… and counterreaction:

A lot of current poptars use ghostwriters. They don’t get songwriting credit. Look around.


So you don’t like what you hear in current pop music and rather than just ignoring it you gather some pseudo-scientific data to serve your conformation bias. Decline in “timbral variety” – indeed!
Full disclosure: I am 67 years old and as a result have known and seen this atypical attitude come around with every generation, always referring to when things were better in the past.
I personally grew up with the Beatles (who didn’t write/read music – and yet reset the parameters of song writing) but also remember all the junk pop that was around at the same time. I still own some of it on 45rpms.
Pop music is mostly music for kids and while I have sentimental feelings for some of these songs (Herman’s Hermits) I have no illusions of their great musical accomplishments.
As your suggested solution to the imagined problem I would add that many a school music program, and at-home-piano-lesson attitudes, ultimately turned kids off to playing music. (Me, personally. Who has gone on to explore, as a musically literate listener who can not read/write music, the widest range of types of music.)
The whole thing about a limited number of people writing many of the hits – well, what about Goffin/King, Leiber/Stoller, the Gershwins, etc, etc.
Not sure how Billy Joel’s cliched template for pop songs is so different from much of the songs/musicians you mentioned – other than that he could read/write the notes to the arena pop songs.
These days, with the Internet in our homes, there is no reason to listen to mass produced pop, especially if you don’t like it.
There is so much great songwriting and musicianship going on all over the world (though I haven’t checked if the artists read/write music) that there is no reason to try to hyperbolize that things are tragically declining.


Many have known for years that the music quality has diminished especially in pop styles..but few could explain why. As a retired K-12 Public School Music Educator both in choral and band I discovered that convincing young people to actually make music was like being a dentist pulling teeth without Novocaine! They wanted their bubble gum music..only. I had one or two out of every class that really wanted to learn something about singing or playing an instrument. The inspiration was present (examples of composers, music history, instruments being made and played, purchased instruments and put hem in the hands and mouths of the students)…but not taken seriously enough to produce a musician of quality..sad to admit. Now that I am retired.. I MAKE music , using several instruments, compose, ear train, improvise with others in small groups and self, listen to many styles of music from all over the world, ..rather enjoy it too! Perhaps there will be an influx of us who will make music come alive to Americans..if we open up our ears and desire to learn and grow. Music is a communication with the soul of mankind. Lets get with it 🙂

Such aspersions upon Joel require a response:

… all Joel did was create huge albums that got airplay on both pop and rock stations throughout the 1970s and 1980s. Not many rock acts can say that today.

Readers know that band was a highlight of my life in high school and at UW–Madison. (Middle school, not so much, since I had a cranky band director — and truth be told who wouldn’t be faced with us — and was forced to play piano.) Band was a great experience for me, in part because it got me to appreciate music other than what I listened to on the radio. That may not necessarily apply to everyone.

You also know that every decade of music, including the decades I grew up in, included musical dreck, and that the words “quality” and “popularity” are not synonyms. (Consider that Chuck Berry’s only number one hit was “My Ding-a-Ling.”) But it’s revealing that a formula for current pop and country music can be discovered without a lot of work:

It is also not exactly news that record companies are in business to make money. Care to guess why today’s country artists appear to be no one besides babes (usually blonde) and hunks?

Frank Zappa had great insight about the record business decades ago:

As you know, my preferred genre is rock. I know people who deplore what they call “Walmart country,” which, as someone who is not enamored of the my-dog-died/my-mom’s-in-prison/my-truck-blew-up/my-girl-left-me/let’s-go-get-drunk tradition of country, seems more like what pop used to be than what pop is now.

It is rather ironic to me that one of the up-and-coming rock acts, Greta Van Fleet, sounds like an amalgam of Led Zeppelin and Rush:

I cannot say that factually popular music regardless of genre is worse today. It is my opinion that, thanks to such technological innovations as autotuning that covers up lack of performer talent, it is more difficult to find listenable popular music today. Or maybe it’s that finding better music requires more effort today.


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s