Using Data Science to Measure Revolutions in Music

Okay, so that headline sounds pretty dry. But beneath it lies an interesting interpretation of how music has changed–and how it has changed us. I’d be interested in your take on the conclusions that in the grand scheme of things, the Beatles really weren’t that big of a deal. (Me? I think these conclusions are specious.) From Pricenomics:

Humans have been making and listening to music for a really long time. But every once in a while, the kind of music people like to listen to changes. And sometimes it changes a lot.

In 1850s, Franz Lizst’s technically demanding Romantic compositions for solo piano had the ladies swooning. A century later, Elvis Presley did the same belting simple lyrics over three chords on a guitar. A few short decades after that, Coolio topped the charts with bassy synth, snare, and vocals that mostly consisted of a rhythmically-spoken monologue.

There’s no doubt that music changes over time, especially popular music. But it’s rarely easy to say, definitively, exactly how it changed and when.

Now, a group of scientists publishing in the Royal Society of Science says they’ve figured out how to use data sniff-out the most pivotal periods in the history of popular music. They hope that their approach will bring some objectivity to debates about trends in musical history.

“You can say, ‘This is really when it happened,’” one of the authors, Armand Leroi, told the LA Times. “It’s not just, ‘Things were really cool at CBGB’s or on the Sunset Strip back then.’”

It turns out that ‘it’ — the biggest musical revolution in the history of popular music — really happened in 1991, with the rise of rap and hip hop to the pop charts.

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Alan Cross

is an internationally known broadcaster, interviewer, writer, consultant, blogger and speaker. In his 30+ years in the music business, Alan has interviewed the biggest names in rock, from David Bowie and U2 to Pearl Jam and the Foo Fighters. He’s also known as a musicologist and documentarian through programs like The Ongoing History of New Music.

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