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Ben there, Done that

They don’t make music like they used to

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“They don’t make music like they used to”- ever heard this allegation from the older generation-indicating today’s music isn’t as good as years ago? I’m a fairly passionate fan of electronic music, a modern genre along with pop and rap. Numerous times I have encountered this opinion of the perceived drop in musical quality.  Since opinions are a subjective preference, I chose to research to see if there was any truth to this statement.

The first thing I wanted to explore is how music has evolved over the decades and if the changes that have occurred are objective or subjective. Generally, when I hear someone reminisce about the music of their youth, they are normally referring to music from the ‘70s and ‘80s. Morris, a data visualizer from Toronto, took the top 100 songs from every year from 1960 to 2015 and ranked them on the lyrical repetitiveness of each song using a compression algorithm and then averaged them together each year and plotted them on a graph.  What he uncovered in this study is: in 1960, the average top 100 song was 46% repetitive and over the next five and a half decades this number rose to about 54%. In effect, yes, modern music is getting more repetitive, but not by astronomically large amounts. The difference of just 9% is quite minor, especially over such a long span of time. 

Another claim by the older generation suggests that technology is decreasing the artistry. For example, “Well music today is all just made on the computer with a few clicks.” Is the computerization of music production somehow removing the talent and creativity of modern music? True, using computers has made music production highly accessible to more people. Nevertheless, the level of creativity to produce good music has not diminished. Computers are distinctly uncreative. They greatly speed up the creative process and allow for things that were previously impossible or next to it. However, no amount of fancy technology can dismiss the fact a person has to tell a computer what to do. In the end, of the day, the artist is what truly makes a song. It is like saying a piano makes a pianist. No, without the skill of a talented person, a piano is just an awkward piece of furniture. The same is just as true with synthesizers, computers, and other technology used to make music in our modern era.

In fact, I would strongly argue the increased accessibility brought about by technology has had the opposite effect on the music industry. With more people technically able to make music, a more creative and talented artist is required to produce an outstanding musical piece. Take, for example, the 2019 hit pop song “Bad Guy” by Billie Eilish. The drumbeat of the song is made from a recording of the artist and her producer striking matches in the echo-filled environment of a bathtub. This strange-sounding beat forms the backbone of a song hailed for its innovative and unique sound. Now how creative is that? Contrast this with the ‘60s and ‘70s when rock reigned supreme on the charts - the vast majority of the music was limited only to guitar, piano, drums, and vocals. Thus, I would say the flexibility and accessibility granted by technology has radically increased the creativity of the music industry, not demolished it. 

Music has changed immensely over the last 50-70 years and many styles have come and gone. Everyone has different tastes or subjective views in what music they enjoy. Every time music evolves into something new, some critics will express their displeasure. Let’s reframe our thinking. Music, along with all other forms of artistic expression, is highly subjective. Yes, as a young person, the music of today is more tailored to my tastes. However, I also understand in the future things will change and there’s bound to be new music I won’t enjoy. This doesn’t mean it will be objectively worse, it means that I will find it subjectively worse. I am not asking for you to change your preference in music, but rather proposing you change the way you think about music from something objective to something subjective.

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