Tuesday, July 21st, 2015

The Science of Music: Same Old Song

THE kids these days play their music too loud and it all sounds the same. Old fogies familiar with such sentiments will be happy to hear that maths bears them out. An analysis published in Scientific Reports by Joan Serrà of the Artificial Intelligence Research Institute in Barcelona and his colleagues has found that music has indeed become both more homogeneous and louder over the decades.

Dr Serrà began with the basic premise that music, like language, can evolve over time, often pulled in different directions by opposing forces. Popular music especially has always prized a degree of conformity—witness the enduring popularity of cover songs and remixes—while at the same time being obsessed with the new. To untangle these factors, Dr Serrà’s team sifted through the Million Song Dataset, run jointly by Columbia University, in New York, and the Echo Nest, an American company, which contains beat-by-beat data on a million Western songs from a variety of popular genres. The researchers focussed on the primary musical qualities of pitch, timbre and loudness, which were available for nearly 0.5m songs released from 1955 to 2010.

burning mic

They found that music today relies on the same chords as music from the 1950s. Nearly all melodies are composed of ten most popular chords. They follow a similar pattern to written texts, where the most common word occurs roughly twice as often as the second most common, three times as often as the third most common, and so on, a linguistic regularity known as Zipf’s law. What has changed is how the chords are spliced into melodies. In the 1950s many of the less common chords would chime close to one another in the melodic progression. More recently, they have tended to be separated by the more pedestrian chords, leading to a loss of some of the more unusual transitions. Timbre, lent by instrument types and recording techniques, similarly shows signs of narrowing, after peaking in the mid-60s, a phenomenon Dr Serrà attributes to experimentation with electric-guitar sounds by Jimi Hendrix and the like.

What music lost in variety, it has gained in volume. Songs today are on average 9 decibels louder than half a century ago, confirming what industry types have long suspected: that record labels engage in a “loudness race” in order to catch radio listeners’ attention. Since digital audio formats max out at a certain decibel level, as the average loudness inches towards that ceiling, songs will lose dynamic range, becoming ever more uniform.

This homogeneity is not just jarring to melomaniacs. It might confuse the popular algorithms for identifying and recommending tracks, like those used by Spotify and other music services. Many of these rely on timbre measurements to sort songs into genres, for instance. Some musicians are bound to respond by confounding expectations with new sounds. Whether audiences wish to be confounded remains moot.

Reprinted from The Economist, July 26, 2012 by L.R.

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Songs That Should Have Been Top-Ten Pop Hits, Volume 2

When I first scanned the program of over 160 films scheduled for the Ninth Annual Dallas International Film Festival, Do I Sound Gay? resonated in a particularly personal way.  As the title suggests, the documentary examines the complicated relationship between gay men and their speaking voices and specifically chronicles the attempt by director David Thorpe to discover his own true voice—ideas that have informed my own writing extensively.  As the festival program notes, “What began as a personal journey quickly became a larger examination of sexuality and identity.”  Do I Sound Gay? was released on July 10th by IFC Films.  Stephen Holden of the New York Times called the film “an engaging personal documentary.”

"Do I Sound Gay" Tim Gunn

Director David Thorpe and Tim Gunn

The documentary features interviews with Dan Savage, David Sedaris, Tim Gunn, Margaret Cho, Don Lemon, and George Takei and explores the subject of authenticity and masculinity in a way that is both entertaining and insightful.  Here is the trailer to Do I Sound Gay?:


And speaking of interviews and gay voices, I was so pleased to be asked by the Dallas International Film Festival to speak with David Thorpe just a few minutes after attending the screening.*


*Videographer and Editing by Andrew Conway: akconway@gmail.com


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This most interesting list of songs Broadway legend Stephen Sondheim wishes he wrote himself (at least in part), originally appeared in the New York Times Magazine in 2000 and was a fascinating sidebar to a Frank Rich piece honoring the composer on his 70th birthday. I only wish that Sondheim had elaborated and expressed why he made these choices. In some cases, it is fairly obvious as these song selections reflect—to use Mr. Rich’s word,”Sondheimesque” qualities. To drill down further, why does the mystery-loving maestro’s specifically make the cryptic reference “at least in part,” without getting specific as to which part of the song he wishes he wrote? With Sondheim it is always puzzles and games.

In the spirit of both encouraging the American Popular Songbook to continue to flourish and with an interest in illuminating the artistry of inarguably our greatest living musical theater composer, I decided to expand upon Mr. Sondheim’s ideas. The embedded recordings are Stargayzing additions. All of the commentary is mine; only the song choices themselves come from the venerable Mr. Sondheim. I learned many new songs I had never heard from researching this piece. I hope you will too.

Volumes one and two were published here a while back. Here is volume three. Please be sure to let me know which version of these songs is your favorite (in many cases, there were so many great recordings).

Stephen Sondheim old


(AT LEAST IN PART), Volume Three

By Stephen Sondheim


To read these pieces chronologically:

Volume One

Volume Two


Cole Porter piano
Porter, Cole

“Ev’ry Time We Say Goodbye,” from Seven Lively Arts (1944)

This is Sammy Davis Jr.’s beautiful version from his 1966 album Sammy Davis, Jr. Sings and Laurindo Almeida Plays.



Panama Hattie Broadway“Let’s Be Buddies,” from Panama Hattie (1940)

Here is Doris Day singing with the Les Brown Orchestra.


“Let’s Not Talk About Love,” from Let’s Face It (1941)

Danny Kaye starred in the hit 1941 Broadway version of the show, which featured a book by Herbert and Dorothy Fields.


[The rest of Sondheim's picks after the jump.] (more…)