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Jun 30, 2010 | Peter Tanham | 0 Comments

The Evolution of Popular Music - The Listening Context As A Driving Force

Here’s another post inspired by a great Ted Talk, this time by David Byrne’s “How Architecture Helped Music Evolve“. If you have 15 mins to spare it’s well worth the watch (below).

If not, here’s the quick summary:

David describes how different listening environments produce different types of music - loud tribal music is suited to be heard outdoors; choir songs with no rhythm, no key changes and long notes are perfect for large echo-filled cathedrals. Technology like microphones and the radio encouraged the introduction of lyrics and the development of the popular music we know today. Even listening environments like a car stereo helped rap become popular - because it sounded great blaring from a car!

But here’s where my thoughts interject. David seems to suggest that popular music was intentionally written with the listening context in mind, but this isn’t necessarily the case. Many people can write in many different styles, it just so happens that some will sound better in a certain listening context than others. These artists will naturally emerge as the most popular. To take one of his specific examples - did U2 write music designed to sound great in a large stadium? Or did lots of young bands write lots of songs, with U2′s being selected by fans because it happened to sound great in the massive sports arenas?

The process he’s describing - the evolution of popular music - is remarkably similar to evolution in Biology. The listening environment applies a sort of selective pressure on the music styles of the day. Those writers who compose music that suits the environment get selected for (i.e. become popular) and then influence the next generation of writers. I’m sure there’s also forethought and planning involved too - once U2 realised how great their songs sounded in the stadium tours, they wrote more for the same effect.

Predicting The Future

Realising that the listening environment is such a huge determinant of which music became popular in the past, I wonder can it be used to predict what will be popular in the future?

David touches on the Mp3 player in his talk, but what about technologies that are only just emerging today? “Music in the cloud” services like Spotify, Pandora (or even Youtube) will allow people to listen to any song at any time. Music will be streamed not owned and people will have an infinite selection of music to choose from. This is the new listening context we can see emerging, what do you image the musical style best adapted to this context will sound like?

To give us a head start, Jay Frank, author of Futurehit.DNA, has been making observations on emerging trends in popular music. For example, because the next song is only ever a mouse-click away, the most popular songs have no lengthy (i.e. boring) intro. Because the average listener can discover hundreds of new artist per week, those that are releasing more songs more often are staying top of mind and having more success.

What will be the defining characteristics of the hit records of the next 5 years? I don’t have the answer to that, but it might be worth all our whiles thinking about. Between now and, say, 2015, tens of thousands of artists will upload hundreds of thousands of songs to sites like Youtube, Spotify, Pandora and others. New stars will be born, a few trends will emerge and a (slightly) new style of popular music will evolve.

This will happen whether musicians plan for it or not - it’s just natural selection at work. With a little bit of forethought, however, some might be able to jump the gun and write music that best suits the listening context of tomorrow. Write the new “I Still Haven’t Found What I’m Looking For” before the next U2 has a chance to “discover” their sound.

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