The British Invasion Didn’t Revolutionize Music Quite Like We Thought

“I declare that The Beatles are mutants. Prototypes of evolutionary agents sent by God, endowed with a mysterious power to create a new human species, a young race of laughing freemen.” —Timothy Leary

In A Nutshell

Music has long been tied to culture more than to science, but when researchers decided to take a good, hard look at music from a scientific point of view, they found that there were a couple of popular notions that just didn’t hold up any more. By isolating all the basic elements that made up 50 years of Top 100 songs, they were able to see that not only did the changing music trends of the 1960s start before the British Invasion, but that, contrary to popular belief, music isn’t undergoing the slow process of homogenization, either.

The Whole Bushel

When you get to a certain age, new music becomes garbage and you fondly remember when music was real music, not this stuff that’s on the radio now. Music is a constantly evolving thing, and one of the biggest shifts in recent history’s musical trends is often cited as the British Invasion. The Rolling Stones and the Beatles are often at the top of the list of revolutionary musicians that changed music forever, but according to a scientific examination of musical data, they didn’t actually do that.

Music is a strange thing. Much of what we know about it comes in the form of stories, histories, and anecdotes rather than cold, hard science. Recently, a handful of researchers from the Queen Mary University of London and Imperial College London took a look at the evolution of music in a more scientific way.

The data pool was 17,000 recordings that have been on the US Billboard Hot 100 from 1960 to 2010. Each song was reduced to a 30-second sound clip, and (because of older songs that were missing), 86 percent of the Top 100 charts was examined.

Each clip was then broken down into what’s essentially a musical genome. Audio features like chord changes, tonal content, and timbre were then isolated and analyzed, creating a picture of each song’s genetic makeup. Once that was done, researchers were able to look at just what happened to musical trends throughout the decades, and they were also able to determine what genetic characteristics separate the different musical genres.

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Some of the features they found were cyclic—a heavy reliance on aggressive percussion, for example, rose regularly throughout the 1980s, while guitars were loudest in 1966, 1985, and 2009.

Rather than grouping music by its popular categories, they were able to separate it based solely on musical factors, ignoring things like the age of the song or what nationality and country it might be associated with. And what they found is that the scientific data doesn’t support some of the most commonly touted musical beliefs.

One of the most common complaints about more recent music is that it all sounds pretty much the same. The researchers found, though, that that’s not the case at all. Instead, there’s a constant fluctuation in musical dynamics throughout the different styles. Over the 50-year sample period, they found constantly spiking periods of new and particular musical trends.

They also looked at how music might have been influenced by particular artists or groups, specifically the claim that British groups changed the face of music on a global scale. What they found shows that groups like the Beatles and the Rolling Stones, rather than introducing an entirely different brand of music, jumped on trends that had started before their rising popularity in 1964.

The musical genome, rather than showing a massive difference between British Invasion songs and what was already on the airwaves, shows a pattern that’s more like a wave; they rode the wave, they made it popular, and it’s suggested that they even might have exploited it, but they didn’t start it.

Show Me The Proof

Featured photo credit: EMI
The Evolution of Popular Music: USA 1960–2010
Medium: Genetic Data Tools Reveal How Pop Music Evolved In The US

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