Updated: Sep 27
by Lucas Rivera
It has long been clear that the quality of new music has been declining. We have suspected it ever since the early 2000s - some before even that. It has been getting duller and more repetitive. It sounds less rich, more monotone, but yet somehow louder than ever. These things have been noticeable for a long time, but now science has begun to empirically prove it through studies and experiments. But in order to truly understand how far music has fallen, we need to see where music started, and how it started to falter.
According to Gordon Epperson, a Professor of Music at the University of Arizona, music most likely first appeared around 800,000 to 250,000 years ago. The reason for its emergence was most likely the increase in free time provided by the discovery of fire. With fire came security and food, and more time to spend resting, socializing, and as it so happens, singing. At around 250,000 B.C. instruments were beginning to be created - from bone flutes to hide drums. These instruments added to the repertoire of sounds humans were able to create and increased the music being made.
Going forward to Greek times, there were many days of celebration and feasts for the numerous gods celebrated by their civilization. The famous Greek instrument, the lyre, was used in these celebrations to recite musical poetry. Later on the Romans also adopted many of these celebrations, and added their own music and instruments to them. These feasts were often called a "feast for the senses" due to the fact that they not only appealed to taste through food, but also hearing through music from various songs and instruments that played throughout the event.
Later in the Middles Ages, many Roman and Greek instruments, such as the lyre, horn, etc., were used in more music. New instruments were also invented like the harp, lute, modern flute, and even early ancestors of the guitar like the mandore. Music of this time was deeply religious and liturgical, reflecting the faith-centered life led at the time.
With the rebirth, or Renaissance, many new instruments were made. Early versions of the trumpet, organ, and tambourine were all invented and used in new types of music. Music also moved away from being so religious, and instead began to focus more on the community rather than the Church.
Fast-forwarding centuries, music is said to have peaked in the 1960s, with the emergence of the popular band the Beatles and Motown creating an interesting and colorful landscape of music for most anyone to enjoy. A study supporting this was done by the Artificial Intelligence Research Institute of the Spanish National Research Council in Barcelona, which found that the harmonic complexity of music has been decreasing ever since the 60s, making music sound less interesting and more similar to all the other songs being produced. In other words, ever since the end of the 60s, sounds have sounded more and more similar due to fewer differences in things such as beat and instruments used.
Timbral diversity has also been found to be decreasing exponentially as well. Timbral diversity is essentially the quality of the sound being produced in music. Interestingly, while the quality of the sound has gone down, the loudness of music has gone up- meaning that volume is valued more than sound in contemporary music.
So what is the end result of this long-winded diatribe talking about fancy music terms?
Essentially, ever since the 1960s there has been less diversity in the instruments, sounds, and beats of songs. This leads to songs sounding more and more similar. Fast forward to 2023 and the top 10 songs sound so similar that you cannot tell where one song ends and another begins. Sound quality, the richness and deepness of a song, has also gone down exponentially and in the same period of time, the loudness of music has only gone up. So volume is now valued more than the quality of the sound in a song.
But this is far from the only reason for music's fall from grace. There is also a lack of innovation that has made music so stale. There has been little to no change in music for nigh on twenty years; whereas beforehand pioneers in the music industry made a new genre every five years or so.
An example of how much music used to change is easy to find. All you would need to do is imagine an audience from the 1960s: people who are used to the style of the Temptations and Beatles, generally soft and slower music with bass and some different orchestras or miscellaneous instruments such as trumpets for the Temptations smash hit song "My Girl". Now imagine if this audience was introduced to the synth and guitars of the 80s, and the work of AC/DC's "Highway to Hell" or Survivor's "High on You". The result would be obvious; the audiences of the '60s would have absolutely no idea what to make of it - the rhythms, beats, instruments, and vocals are all so different it would challenge the very idea of music. And we can replicate this over and over again. Take an audience from the '70s used to the Eagles and Redbone's "Come and Get Your Love", and have them listen to Shaggy's "Mr. Bombastic" from 1995 and they would have no idea what to make of it.
Now take that same scenario and apply it to the last 20 years, you'll find that the situation is slightly different. An early 2000s audience used to listening to Britney Spears and Taylor Swift would be completely at home listening to Olivia Rodrigo and Billie Eilish. Why? Because there have been near zero changes made to the beats, rhythms or instruments used in the music industry. It feels as though all songwriters have agreed to use the same computer program with five instruments and sounds to use for all new songs. Of course, there are exceptions and there will always be interesting music that seeps through the cracks of this self-inflicted barricade on creativity. But the fact that they are the exception and not the general rule is a sad comment on the future of our music industry.
Throughout history, almost since the beginning, humans have used songs to show creativity, give meaning to life and create beauty. Now those original uses for music have been all but forgotten. Gone are the days of songs recognizable only by their first notes. Gone are the smooth beats of the 60s and frantic synth of the 80s, and the float of 90s rap. It has been replaced by a monotone and unicolored landscape of dull and uninteresting rhythms that sound like the song that came before, which sounded like the song before. If we do not do something quickly, we might just get used to music as it is, and forget music as it was.