Hate new music? Scientists have discovered why

Lady Gaga, Tony Bennett and Nat King Cole have all had big hits since the 1950s – but whose was most complex? (Picture: Getty)

The music kids listen to these days, eh?

If you think it was better when you were young, well, that’s entirely subjective to be honest – but it was definitely more complex, as science has proven.

Melodies in pop music have officially become simpler since the 1950s.

A new study of the biggest chart hits identified two ‘significant’ decreases in melodic complexity, one in 1975 and another in 2000, along with a smaller decrease in 1996.  

The change in 1975 could be down to the rise of new musical styles such as disco and stadium rock, while those in 1996 and 2000 could represent the rise of hip-hop and digital production, allowing the repetition of audio loops, say scientists.

Researchers at Queen Mary University of London analysed the most prominent melodies – usually the vocal melody – of songs that reached the top five positions on the US Billboard year-end singles music charts each year between 1950 and 2022. 

Their findings, published in the journal Scientific Reports, suggest that the complexity of the melodies of the most popular songs has decreased over the last eight decades.

Madeline Hamilton, a doctoral student in Queen Mary’s School of Electronic Engineering and Computer Science, and Dr Marcus Pearce conducted the research. 

Ms Hamilton said: ‘We found that the complexity of song rhythms and pitch arrangements decreased over this period as the average number of notes played per second increased. 

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

‘The melodic changes that occurred in 1975 could represent the rise of genres such as new wave, disco and stadium rock. 

‘Those occurring 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.’

What exactly does ‘more simple’ music mean?

‘For older songs with complex melodies, I would point to the number one song of 1975, Love Will Keep Us Together by Captain & Tennille,’ says Ms Hamilton. ‘The melody at the beginning looks like this:

A sample of Love Will Keep Us Together by Captain & Tennille

‘The vocal melody is complex from both a pitch and rhythm standpoint. There are lots of unexpected pitches in the melody. When songs are in B Major like this, you very rarely see A naturals and D naturals, like you do here. Rhythmically, there’s also complexity: look at the triplets in bar 13. 

‘Compare this to the melody from the number one song of 2000, Breathe by Faith Hill. In particular, the chorus melody looks like this:

A sample of Breathe by Faith Hill

‘You can see that this melody is much simpler. The phrase in bar 40 is repeated a bunch of times. Rhythmically, the melody is pretty straightforward.’

However, the findings are not a verdict on the quality of music over the years. The team noted that although the complexity of popular melodies appears to have decreased in recent decades, it does not suggest that the complexity of other musical components – such as the quality or combinations of sounds – has also decreased. 

‘Decreases in melodic complexity could result from increases in the complexity of other musical elements, such as an increase in the average number of notes played per second, to prevent music from sounding overwhelming to listeners,’ said Ms Hamilton. 

She says that expansions in the availability of digital instruments may enable musical complexity to be expressed through sound quality, rather than melody.

‘The findings provide further insight into the evolution of popular music over the past 70 years.’ 

She added: ‘I think the source of complexity is shifting away from melody and towards other musical dimensions of the song, such as the song’s harmony harmony – the chords being played underneath the melody, or timbres – the textures or tone colors of the instruments being used.’

However, Ms Hamilton does not believe it to be a bad thing. 

‘I think it’s neither positive nor negative, it’s just a shift in the way music is created and enjoyed. Melodies becoming simpler is not a bad thing,’ she said. 

‘In fact, some of the best songs have very simple melodies.’

Asked what was her own personal favourite from those analysed, she said: ‘I was born in 1998, so I’m nostalgic for the music of my childhood, the 2010s, and would have to say that I prefer newer music.

‘However, in conducting this study, I got to learn about some older songs that are really beautiful. My favorite older song that I included in the dataset is “You Belong To Me” by Jo Stafford. Her vocal performance is really lovely, her voice just floats over the music.

‘I hope that this study helps us remember older music like that.’

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