The evolution of popular music: USA 1960–2010
In modern societies, cultural change seems ceaseless. The flux of fashion is especially obvious for popular music. While much has been written about the origin and evolution of pop, most claims about its history are anecdotal rather than scientific in nature. To rectify this, we investigate the US Billboard Hot 100 between 1960 and 2010. Using music information retrieval and text-mining tools, we analyse the musical properties of approximately 17 000 recordings that appeared in the charts and demonstrate quantitative trends in their harmonic and timbral properties. We then use these properties to produce an audio-based classification of musical styles and study the evolution of musical diversity and disparity, testing, and rejecting, several classical theories of cultural change. Finally, we investigate whether pop musical evolution has been gradual or punctuated. We show that, although pop music has evolved continuously, it did so with particular rapidity during three stylistic ‘revolutions’ around 1964, 1983 and 1991. We conclude by discussing how our study points the way to a quantitative science of cultural change.
The history of popular music has long been debated by philosophers, sociologists, journalists, bloggers and pop stars [1–7]. Their accounts, though rich in vivid musical lore and aesthetic judgements, lack what scientists want: rigorous tests of clear hypotheses based on quantitative data and statistics. Economics-minded social scientists studying the history of music have done better, but they are less interested in music than the means by which it is marketed [8–15]. The contrast with evolutionary biology—a historical science rich in quantitative data and models—is striking, the more so because cultural and organismic variety are both considered to be the result of modification-by-descent processes [16–19]. Indeed, linguists and archaeologists, studying the evolution of languages and material culture, commonly apply the same tools that evolutionary biologists do when studying the evolution of species [20–25].