...The musicologist Stephen Ledbetter was a student of Gustave Reese, and he tells a story of taking a class with Reese in the 60s:
At one point in class, when the discussion came around to recent trends in music…, someone asked him where he thought music was heading. Reese made the point that the history of music, from at least the 14th century on, has consisted of a series of waves of development in which the style reaches a level of complexity beyond which it seems impossible to go (perhaps for reasons of apparent limits in human perception on the listener’s side or of technical ability on the performers’), and that this “crisis” leads to a radical simplification in one or more elements of music, after which the process begins again….
So when put to the specific question in class about what would happen next in contemporary music, Reese responded, “I have no idea, but I’m sure that it will involve some dramatic simplification, because we seem to have gone about as far as we can on the current track.”
Of course, at just about this time some composers named La Monte Young, Terry Riley, Steve Reich, and Philip Glass were simplifying music as dramatically as they could figure out how.
Interestingly enough, we find the same insight once again, elaborated in far more detail, in Leonard Meyer’s book Music, the Arts, and Ideas. In the chapter “Varieties of Style Change,” he theorizes that “once its fundamental material, formal, and syntactic premises have been established, a style tends to change or develop in its own way, according to its own internal and inherent dynamic process.” (p. 114) Meyer goes on to delineate three stages in the development of a style:
* Pre-classic, in which the music has a low level of compositional information and a high level of redundancy, as is necessary for the new style to be intelligently understood;
* Classic, in which the tradeoff between information and redundancy reaches an optimum balance for maximum enjoyment by those listeners educated to understand the style; and
* Mannerist, in which the amount of information rises and redundancy decreases so that the music becomes overly complex for the average listener, and ceases to be understandable by all but a few cognoscenti.
Each cycle in the history of music ends and is replaced by the beginning of a new cycle. As examples Meyer gives the extremely elaborate music of the late Renaissance by Lassus, Palestrina, and especially the mannerist Gesualdo, which was replaced around 1600 by the extremely simple and redundant music of the Florentine Camerata; the highly saturated polyphonic music of Bach and Handel, which gave way in the 1720s and ’30s to the simple, redundant symphonies of Sammartini, Monn, Wagenseil and others; then the hugely elaborate symphonies and tone poems of Strauss and Mahler, which were replaced after World War I by the more modest forms of neoclassicism and early atonality. And at the time Meyer was writing, music had once again reached an apex of complexity and a nadir of redundancy in the works of Babbitt and Boulez. ...
... Perhaps unsurprisingly, the Medical University of Vienna, Austria, scientists found that the more popular a musical style grew, the more generic it became—partly due to the glut of artists that flock to a burgeoning sound and the drop-off in innovation that tends to accompany demand.
The study looked at the "instrumentational complexity" of more than half-a-million albums from 1955 to 2011, across 15 genres and 374 styles as diverse as "hyphy," "viking metal," "acid jazz," and "Korean court music." Within those styles, researchers analyzed the use of nearly 500 instruments. Styles that used generic instruments found in many other styles had low complexity, while styles with a wider array of instruments that were used in fewer styles had high complexity.
Perhaps most interesting is the study's tracking of "complexity life cycles." For one, "experimental," "folk," and "folk rock" consistently maintained high levels of complexity through each time period studied. Others weren't so lucky: "Soul," "classic rock," and "funk" started out high on the complexity scale but have since plummeted.
At different points in time, styles such as "euro house," "disco," and "pop rock" decreased in complexity, but enjoyed higher average album sales, while "experimental," "alternative rock," and "hip hop" became more complex, but saw overall sales decline. "This can be interpreted," the researchers said, "as music becoming increasingly formulaic in terms of instrumentation under increasing sales numbers due to a tendency to popularize music styles with low variety and musicians with similar skills." (In terms of instrumentation being the key here—and the study only looked at complexity factors that lent themselves to quantitative analysis such as acoustics and timbre).
The Hot 100 matters because it doesn’t just reflect listener preferences, it also shapes them. In a groundbreaking 2006 study on the influence of song rankings, three researchers at Columbia University showed that popularity can be a self-fulfilling prophecy. The researchers sent participants to different music Web sites where they could listen to dozens of tracks and download their favorites. Some sites displayed a ranking of the most-downloaded songs; others did not. Participants who saw rankings were more likely to listen to the most-popular tracks.
The researchers then wondered what would happen if they manipulated the rankings. In a follow-up experiment, some sites displayed the true download counts and others showed inverted rankings, where the least-popular song was listed in the No. 1 spot. The inverted rankings changed everything: previously ignored songs soared in popularity, and previously popular songs were ignored. Simply believing, even wrongly, that a song was popular made participants more likely to download it.
Billboard replaced its honor system with hard numbers in 1991, basing its charts on point-of-sale data from cash registers. “This was revolutionary,” says Silvio Pietroluongo, Billboard’s current director of charts. “We were finally able to see which records were actually selling.” Around the same time, Billboard switched to monitoring radio airplay through Nielsen.
When that happened, hip-hop and country surged in the rankings and old-fashioned rock slowly began to fade—suggesting that perhaps an industry dominated by white guys on the coasts hadn’t paid enough attention to the music interests of urban minorities and southern whites.
Now that the Billboard rankings are a more accurate reflection of what people buy and play, songs stay on the charts much longer. The 10 songs that have spent the most time on the Hot 100 were all released after 1991, when Billboard started using point-of-sale data—and seven were released after the Hot 100 began including digital sales, in 2005. “It turns out that we just want to listen to the same songs over and over again,” Pietroluongo told me.
Because the most-popular songs now stay on the charts for months, the relative value of a hit has exploded. The top 1 percent of bands and solo artists now earn 77 percent of all revenue from recorded music, media researchers report. And even though the amount of digital music sold has surged, the 10 best-selling tracks command 82 percent more of the market than they did a decade ago. The advent of do-it-yourself artists in the digital age may have grown music’s long tail, but its fat head keeps getting fatter.
Radio stations, meanwhile, are pushing the boundaries of repetitiveness to new levels. According to a subsidiary of iHeartMedia, Top 40 stations last year played the 10 biggest songs almost twice as much as they did a decade ago. Robin Thicke’s “Blurred Lines,” the most played song of 2013, aired 70 percent more than the most played song from 2003, “When I’m Gone,” by 3 Doors Down. Even the fifth-most-played song of 2013, “Ho Hey,” by the Lumineers, was on the radio 30 percent more than any song from 10 years prior.
And not only are we hearing the same hits with greater frequency, but the hits themselves sound increasingly alike. As labels have gotten more adept at recognizing what’s selling, they’ve been quicker than ever to invest in copycats. People I spoke with in the music industry told me they worried that the reliance on data was leading to a “clustering” of styles and genres, promoting a dispiriting sameness in pop music.
In 2012, the Spanish National Research Council released a report that delighted music cranks around the world. Pop, it seemed, was growing increasingly bland, loud, and predictable, recycling the same few chord progressions over and over. The study, which looked at 464,411 popular recordings around the world between 1955 and 2010, found that the most-played music of the new millennium demonstrates “less variety in pitch transitions” than that of any preceding decade. The researchers concluded that old songs could be made to sound “novel and fashionable” just by freshening up the instrumentation and increasing “the average loudness.”
The problem is not our pop stars. Our brains are wired to prefer melodies we already know. (David Huron, a musicologist at Ohio State University, estimates that at least 90 percent of the time we spend listening to music, we seek out songs we’ve heard before.) That’s because familiar songs are easier to process, and the less effort needed to think through something—whether a song, a painting, or an idea—the more we tend to like it. In psychology, this idea is known as fluency: when a piece of information is consumed fluently, it neatly slides into our patterns of expectation, filling us with satisfaction and confidence.
“Things that are familiar are comforting, particularly when you are feeling anxious,” Norbert Schwarz, a psychology professor at the University of Southern California, who studies fluency, told me. “When you’re in a bad mood, you want to see your old friends. You want to eat comfort food. I think this maps onto a lot of media consumption. When you’re stressed out, you don’t want to put on a new movie or a challenging piece of music. You want the old and familiar.”
Floating an idea here, after all that--it's interesting that on the classical side of things the shift in a developed style is toward more complexity and mannerism. From the Classic era to the Romantic era a sonata would drop the structural repetition of the exposition, for instance, or it might introduce larger or a larger number of themes. A development section might introduce a new theme altogether.
But to go by how people describe the evolution of styles of popular music, once a style has emerged it explodes with variety that later shifts toward what some would feel is a stultifying sameness. Dwight Macdonald's vituperation against pop culture and the corporate systems that promoted it generally was that it was going to boil out and away every folk and regional/communal element that made folk art and folk music actually interesting in favor of an undifferentiated mass culture.
Fortunately musical styles can never even possibly exist in isolation. Still, these patterns of evolution within musical styles are interesting to read about. I think that Leo Brouwer and Toru Takemitsu were both on to an interesting idea proposing that if there's a "future" in music it will be in fusion. If any given individual style calcifies and de-verifies or becomes overly mannerist WITHIN the style, and if we're living in an era in which revolutionary change is not likely, the revolution won't be a "new" style but fusions of existing styles. It's not like Miles Davis and the Beatles and countless other musicians within and across styles haven't been showing us the way on this for the last half century.