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Scientists track the hip-hop revolution

06 May 2015

Title: The Evolution of Popular Music: USA 1960–2010

Authors: Matthias Mauch , Robert M. MacCallum , Mark Levy , Armand M. Leroi

Journal: Royal Society Open Science

Scientists from Queen Mary University and Imperial College London have teamed up with Last.fm, a music discovery site with 50 million subscribers, to analyse the evolution of pop music in America. By approaching the charts with a scientific eye (or ear!) the team have pinpointed the birth of disco, the hip-hop revolution and the lingering death of Jazz and Blues.

With the help of vast digital libraries of chart music this is the first study to scientifically study how chart music changed between 1960 and 2010. The team used the same techniques researchers use to study the evolution or animals and culture to objectivity track evolving popular music.

The team analysed the musical properties of 17000, 30 second song clips, looking at patterns of chord changes and tone.

Overall the chord changes that matched with Last.fm tags for Classic Country, Classic Rock and Love were the most popular harmonics in the charts in 43 out of 50 years. The team also tracked the decline of jazz. The popularity of the chords used in songs by artists like B.B. King to give music a gritty tone dropped by 75% between 1960 and 2009. The team say this represents the ‘lingering death’ of the genre.

The results show there were three revolutions in music including one in 1964 but the team say that, despite the timing, it wasn’t down to hits by The Beatles. Although I want to hold your hand, was released on 26th December 1963 in the US, the American music charts were already on course for the revolution. British bands like the Beatles and The Rolling Stones might have exploited the changing tastes to boost their popularity but scientists say they didn’t start the revolution.

By the late 1980s there was another revolution in the type of music that was most popular. Hip-hop rapidly took over the charts; without any identifiable chord structures, the music, which has an energetic and bright tone, was barely seen in the sixties and seventies but reached a peak in popularity in 1993.

‘Contrary to current theories of musical evolution, we find no evidence for the progressive homogenisation of music in the charts. Instead the evolution of chart diversity is dominated by historically unique events: the rise and fall of particular ways of making music’ say the team. They add that they want to track back to the 1940, ‘if only to see If 1955 was, as many have claimed, the birth date of Rock’n’Roll’.