Older generations frequently complain that their children’s music “all sounds the same.” A recent study published in Scientific Report confirms this complaint: pop music really is getting louder. “Measuring the Evolution in Contemporary Western Popular Music” examined 464,411 distinct music recordings from 1955 to 2010 available in the Million Song Dataset. Researchers ran the songs through a series of complex algorithms to quantify harmonic sequences, timbre, and loudness of music in a variety of genres, including rock, pop, hip-hop, metal, and electronic. The study found that over the years, pop music has moved toward simpler harmonic progressions, more predictable and consistent timbres, and overall louder volume (Sera et al 2012).
That current pop music has fewer harmonies and timbres is not surprising. Much of what draws youth to popular music today is the “beat” of the music rather than interesting progressions and sound combinations. If you listen to any pop radio station for long, you cannot help but notice that much of the music is very similar. Blogger Scicurious recently (August 13, 2012, http://scientopia.org/blogs/scicurious) pointed this out. The first twenty seconds of Nicki Minaj’s “Turn Me On” consist of eight bars of synthesized beats followed by the lyrics “Doctor, doctor, need you bad, hold me babe” sung over the same chord. Snoop Dogg’s “Sweat” opens with four bars of synthesized beats followed by the lyrics “Can you be my doctor? Can you fix me up?” over the same chord. If you are not listening carefully, you might not even notice when the song changes.
Even more worrying than the homogeneity of recent pop music is its increasing volume. Recent changes in recording technology have resulted in records becoming louder, a phenomenon known as the “loudness wars.” In today’s digital formats, music is compressed to fit into a smaller space. This technique has the unfortunate consequence of eliminating many dynamic contrasts. Instead of relying on dynamic contrast, the recording industry has adopted the philosophy that the louder the record is, the easier it will be for people to recognize it and for the record to become a hit. Matt Mayfield’s “The Loudness War” on YouTube illustrates the unfortunate effects this approach has on music (http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=3Gmex_4hreQ). Mayfield plays the beginning of Paul McCartney’s “Figure of Eight,” noting how much punch the drums have when they enter. He then plays the song as if it had been recorded with today’s compression levels and demonstrates how much louder the track is. When the track is compressed, the drums lose their punch, and the song becomes less effective.
While engineers and producers have played a significant role in making pop music louder, the artists are not without fault. Many artists have pandered to changing tastes in pop music and have written simpler, less dynamic songs. Much of today’s popular music has few or no breaks in the volume; the songs are just loud from beginning to end. Unfortunately, the listener then loses all the benefits of quiet and silence in music. The listener needs periods of rest to react to a particular word or phrase that the artist has decided is important. The contrast of loud and soft enables the listener to explore how the music is affecting him or her and to interact with the music and use it in a meaningful way. The lack of dynamic range prevents the listener from engaging with the music in any but a superficial way.
A closer look at the punk/alternative band Green Day demonstrates both how silence can be used to great effect and how the lack of dynamic contrast is a detriment. Their 1994 breakout album Dookie featured a variety of songs about coming of age in suburbia. The song “Longview,” with its iconic bass line, explores the monotony of living in the suburbs. The song starts off with the walking bass already creating boredom by repeating itself four times before Billie Armstrong begins to sing. The soft shuffle of the toms on the drum set along with the bass give us time to absorb how bored Armstrong is as he changes “channels for an hour or two / Twiddle my thumbs just for a bit.” Because the beginning is soft, the listener is struck by the force of Armstrong’s anger in the chorus when the guitar begins to strum forcefully along with Armstrong’s cry to “bite my lips and close my eyes / Take me away to paradise.” The contrast of soft and loud gives us time to feel the tedium of living in the suburbs.
Almost twenty years later, Green Day’s newly released album, ¡Uno!, shows how the changing music industry has affected the quality of the music. The song “Kill the DJ” harkens back to Green Day’s punk roots with its insistence on killing “the man.” The track starts loudly with a harsh minor guitar riff. Armstrong immediately butts up against religion by complaining about “Christian soldiers / Filled with mind jivin’ control.” Continuing with the same loud guitar riff, Armstrong commands, “Someone kill the DJ, shoot the f***ing DJ.” The rest of the lyrics bring up angry complaints against religious and cultural authorities and focuses mostly on the phrase, “someone kill the DJ.” In fact, Armstrong uses variations of that phrase thirty times in the song. Unfortunately, Armstrong never gives us enough of a break from his angry complaints to think about who the DJ is and why we should be upset with him. Instead, all the listener gets is the unchanging angry guitar riff throughout the whole song. Unlike “Longview,” which gives us time to wallow in our boredom, “Kill the DJ” slams the listener over the head with the same relentless complaint without giving the listener space to explore how or why one might want to get rid of “the man.”
Green Day’s journey from “Longview” to “Kill the DJ” illustrates how much louder and less interesting much of popular music has become. “Kill the DJ” bows to the whims of current listeners, while “Longview” falls into the tradition of more dynamic bands such as U2 and The Beatles, as well as most of Western history’s popular music. U2’s “Where the Streets Have No Name” engages the listener through its increasing sonic ride. The nearly two minutes of crescendo at the beginning of the song continue to rise once the vocals peak at the end of the lyrics before beginning a slow descent to the end. The rise and fall at both ends of the song give us time to absorb the lyrics of the text. Going back further to The Beatles, we hear the word painting in songs like “Let It Be,” where the music always gets softer on the phrase “Whisper words of wisdom / Let it be,” making sure the listener has to engage more closely as the song gets quieter.
Of course, silence in music extends beyond the popular music of Green Day and The Beatles to classical music. Impressionists like Debussy use silence to great effect, giving the listener time to reflect on nature and space. Beethoven explores the space between loud and soft, helping the listener experience the extreme ranges of human emotions. The alternation of recitatives, arias, and choruses in a Bach cantata gives the listener time to hear and reflect on the word of God. The music—and the silence—to which one listens encourages meditation on the meaning and emotions in the music. One listens and receives the richness of music through its silences.
Great pieces of music are meaningful because the space which silence provides resonates with human needs and experiences. Silence rings true to the listener because it transcends. Spiritual practices have always recognized this need. Practices like visualization, prayer, and meditation invite the faithful to become aware of themselves and the ways in which God speaks to them. Silence becomes a prayerful conversation during which one speaks to and listens to God. In Keeping Silence: Christian Practices for Entering Stillness (Moorehouse Publishing, 2002), C. W. McPherson writes that “cultivating silence enables us to understand and recover our own humanity; it serves as a catalyst, bringing the presence of God into our lives and into the world” (6). Silence in spiritual practices, as in music, allows one to meditate on words or ideas, reflect on their meaning in one’s life, and explore how they will affect one’s thoughts and actions.
As faith practices demonstrate, silence is essential to meeting our emotional and spiritual needs. Perhaps this study will convince at least a few song writers and performers that we need dynamics and silence in music. Maybe we can move beyond the loudness wars and finally turn the volume back down.
Jennifer Forness is the choir director at Fisher Middle School and Ewing High School in Ewing, New Jersey. She lives in Princeton, New Jersey with her husband and baby girl.
McPherson, C. W. Keeping Silence: Christian Practices for Entering Stillness. Harrisburg, Pennsylvania: Moorehouse Publishing, 2002.
Serra, Joan, Alvaro Corral, Marian Boguna, Martin Haro, and Josep Ll. Arcos. “Measuring the Evolution of Contemporary Western Popular Music.” Scientific Reports. Vol. 2 (July 26, 2012 - online). http://www.nature.com/srep/2012/120726/srep00521/full/srep00521.html.