Hit Songs: They Just Keep Getting LOUDER

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‘They just don’t make music like they used to…’

Actually, that’s only partly true: the latest research shows a surprising consistency across certain musical elements throughout the decades. But there’s definitely been a change in volume, or loudness.  Shuffle songs from different eras and the difference is obvious. The volume ‘knob’ stays the same, but the decibel level increases – and, the dynamic range is oftentimes flatter and less satisfying.

This is all part of a ‘noise race’ that engineers and audiophiles have been complaining about for years – maybe decades – and now, the trend is being quantified.  Ahead of the weekend, Rutgers Graduate School students Shaun Ellis and Tom Engelhardt released a trove of data related to chart-topping songs dating back to 1960.  They scanned an exhaustive range of attributes related to top-ranked songs, including tempo, time signature, key, and chord progressions.  The Echo Nest offered quite a bit of data, algorithms, and API-related assistance.

Unsurprisingly, lots of hit songs share common attributes, especially elements like verse-chorus-verse and 4/4 time signatures.  But since the 1960s, there’s been a clear march towards louder, fuller, more blaring music.

The group found marked increases in decibel (dB) levels, though aspects that seem ‘loud’ often refer to other attributes.  “Clearly, songs are becoming ‘louder,’ but we are forced to ask questions about changes in production processes and media formats over the decades,” the group relayed.  “Most track decibel levels these days are normalized so that peaks and valleys in the track’s waveform are largely eradicated, producing that lovely tinny quality that audiophiles and vinyl enthusiasts loath.”

Unfortunately, a lot of song engineers feel trapped: if they don’t create that aural “push,” then other songs on the radio or in the club will simply out-blast them.  So, gone are the subtleties and dynamic ranges that often make music so great.  “So it might not actually be the case that that ‘gosh danged rock n’ roll music’ is getting louder, only that volume levels are becoming stabilized over the course of an entire song and, therefore, being interpreted as “louder” by Echo Nest’s computer algorithms.”