Do you remember those not-so-long-ago times when soda came in glass bottles, drive-in-movies were still a thing, and tomatoes actually tasted like tomatoes?

Even though in most ways we are generally better off now than we used to be, it’s easy to look back and romanticize the “good old days.” Whether we call it declinism (bad) or nostalgia (not so bad), it’s pretty common to gripe about the state of things today, bemoaning the declining craftsmanship and build quality of our furniture, the dwindling number of doctors who make house calls, or  those NBA players who are all about flashy highlight plays and lack the fundamentals of the Larry Birds and Hakeem Olajuwons of decades past.

The same sentiment crops up in the arts as well, where some musicians have observed that there seem to be fewer unique artists nowadays – that the musicians of yesteryear were more idiosyncratic, remarkable, unique, and had more to say than those of today.

For instance, Canadian conductor Boris Brott once remarked that while 50 years ago one could tell immediately which orchestra was performing a given work, nowadays, orchestras have become “very similar and often (are) lacking in personality.” He goes on to say that “It will be important to regain a sense of personality in our art…it remains for those of us who are entrusted to its future (the orchestra) to use the best in our imagination to assure its health and development for future generations.”

Another conductor, Franz-Paul Decker, noted that “Musicmaking nowadays is mostly without soul and heart (unfortunately) in spite of really technically fabulous playing (by soloists)… When (Fritz) Kreisler (played the violin) you had either a smile (on) your face or tears in your eyes.”

Violinist Ivry Gitlis expressed similar thoughts in a recent interview, saying “…Elman, Kreisler, Heifetz, Milstein, Menuhin, Busch, Sammons, Oistrakh, Francescatti, Huberman, Enescu, Szigeti… Each one of them playing the same music would be a completely different work. Today you have marketable potential if you fit into a certain format that one can sell without too much of a problem.”

Is this simply a reflection of our tendency to look favorably at the past, or are we truly becoming more “cookie-cutter-like” in our approach to making music?

The evolution of music

I didn’t turn up any studies which address this debate in the classical realm (please let me know if I missed something), but there is a study of the evolution of western popular music that provided some interesting insights.

The music analyzed in this study was part of the Million Song Dataset – a huge file that includes the audio “signature” of 464,411 songs from 1955 to 2010 across a range of genres, such as rock, pop, hip hop, metal, and electronic. To get a sense of how massive a collection of songs that is, the authors calculated that it would take about 1200 days, listening 24 hours a day, to get through the entire playlist.

The researchers were primarily interested in seeing how popular music had evolved over 50 years, and looked at three key elements of the music contained in this dataset – pitch, timbre, and loudness.

Pitch included details about harmony, melody, chords, and progressions – essentially how the notes were arranged and unfolded over the course of the song.

Timbre related to the color, texture, and quality of sounds used in the song, for instance the choice of instruments as well as recording techniques which affect this aspect of sound.

And loudness, of course, is about the inherent volume of the music itself, before any adjustments by the listener.

Less variety, but louder

The researchers found that while there was a lot of same-ness among all the songs in the dataset (even over a span of 50 years), there were three trends.

In terms of pitch, the data suggested that the variety of pitch progressions used has shrunk over the years. In other words, musicians are becoming less inventive and adventurous in how they get from one note or chord to the next, and instead seem to be relying more and more on the same sequences and patterns that others have used successfully in the past.

A similar homogenization seemed to occur with timbre. Whether it’s due to an increasing reliance on the same instrumentation, or the utilization of the same limited toolbox of recording techniques, the palette of sound colors/texture/tone present in recordings has diminished as well.

(When you get a chance, check out this amusing fake pop song , which is a collection of all the cliches which illustrate the sameness the study gets at.)

Meanwhile, everything is getting louder. Which might not seem like a big deal (just turn down the volume knob, right?), until you start to notice that when everything is louder, the dynamic range becomes much more restricted. As in, the contrast between the really soft stuff, and the really loud stuff shrinks, so the overall emotional impact of the music is reduced. Check out this video for a vivid demonstration of what this sounds like.

Take action

It’s not fair to compare popular musicians and classical musicians of course, so it’s not clear what an analysis of classical music recordings would yield.

But what is your impression of today’s music scene? Are musicians/orchestras/chamber music groups today more uniform and undistinguishable than the great artists of years past? Or is our perspective just skewed?

Leave your vote in the comments below (“yes, musicians are more alike each other today” or “no, musicians today are as unique and distinct from one another as they ever were”) – and to make things more fun, I’d love if you could also post a YouTube link to one of your favorite examples of a musician (current or past) who has a unique, distinctive, artistic voice.

Additional reading

I’m currently fascinated by Norman Lebrecht’s book The Life and Death of Classical Music, which chronicles the birth, rise, and fall of the classical music recording industry from Caruso in 1902 through the year 2006, with lots of interesting anecdotes about legendary figures such as Artur Schnabel and Wilhelm Kempff along the way.