Song melodies have become simpler over the last 70 years, study finds

Song melodies have become simpler over the last 70 years, study finds Since the 1950s, chart hits have become less melodically complex, report the researchers at Queen Mary University of London

You're probably tired of hearing your parents insist that the old songs are the best.

But they could be right – as a study reveals song melodies have become simpler since the 1950s.

Researchers have discovered that the complexity of the melodies of the most popular songs each year in the US has decreased in the last 70 years.

The team, from Queen Mary University of London, analysed the most prominent melodies (usually the vocal melody) of songs that reached the top five positions of the US Billboard year-end singles music charts each year between 1950 and 2022.

They identified two significant decreases in melodic complexity that occurred in 1975 and 2000, along with a smaller decrease in 1996.

US Billboard year-end singles

  • 1964 – 1st – 'I Want to Hold Your Hand' (The Beatles), 2nd – 'She Loves You' (The Beatles)
  • 1975 – 1st - 'Love Will Keep Us Together' (Captain & Tennille), 2nd - 'Rhinestone Cowboy' (Glen Campbell)
  • 1996 – 1st – 'Macarena' (Los del Rio), 2nd – 'One Sweet Day' (Mariah Carey)
  • 2000 – 1st – 'Breathe' (Faith Hill), 2nd – 'Smooth' (Santana)
  • 2020 – 1st – 'Blinding Lights (The Weeknd), 2nd – 'Circles' (Post Malone)

The shift in melody in 1975 could be down to the rise of genres such as new wave, disco and stadium rock, they said.

Meanwhile the changes documented in 1996 and 2000 could represent the rise of hip-hop or the adoption of digital audio workstations, which enabled the repeated playing of audio loops.

When some of the top tunes from different decades are compared, the evolution of song is evident to see.

While the top song in 1964 was 'I Want to Hold Your Hand' by The Beatles, the 1980 equivalent was Blondie's 'Call Me'.

Los del Rio's dance tune 'Macarena' was the firm favourite of 1996, and in 2003 50 Cent's hip hop hit 'In Da Club' reached the number one spot.

And while Adele's power ballad 'Rolling in the Deep' was the top song of 2011, 2021 saw Dua Lipa's disco tune 'Levitating' taking the lead.

Analysis, published in the journal Scientific Reports, also revealed that while the complexity of song rhythms and pitch arrangements decreased over the decades, the number of notes played per second increased.

And it could be that the rise in use of digital instruments may have enabled music complexity to be expressed through sound quality, rather than melody, they added.

'The overriding pattern emerging from these analyses shows decreasing complexity and increasing note density in popular melodies over time, especially since 2000,' they wrote.

'In the 50s, the range of possible timbres for music production was limited to whatever sounds one could make with the physical instruments and accessories available at the time.

'Today, with the accessibility of digital music production software and libraries of millions of samples and loops, anyone with a laptop and an Internet connection can create any sound they can imagine.'

Pop songs will get SHORTER in future because the attention span of young people has dropped by 33% since 2000, experts predict

Pop songs will get shorter on average by the end of this decade because of faltering attention spans and 'skipping culture' on streaming services, experts say.

Attention spans of music fans has dropped from 12 seconds to eight since the year 2000, according to research from Samsung.

As a result it's more important than ever for musicians to draw listeners in early, keep the overall length of a track short and 'load choruses up front'.

On music streaming services like Spotify, artists don't get royalties from a song being played if the listener doesn't get beyond the first 30 seconds.

By 2030, it will therefore be more important than ever for songs to quickly progress to the next track on an album before listeners get bored, the experts say.

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