“The Tragic Decline of Music Literacy (and Quality)” by John Henschen


“Today’s music is designed to sell, not inspire.”

John Henschen

I tend to dive into articles my connections share on LinkedIn pretty regularly. It’s a great source for content ideas, and I enjoy reading interesting things over coffee in the morning. One article caught my attention, and I knew I had to write about it.

The title read, “The Tragic Decline of Music Literacy (and Quality)”.

I expected to agree with the article, but I quickly discovered how narrow-minded it is. John Henschen, an independent broker-dealer recruiter, uses a study conducted by Joan Serra to back up his claims.


Joan Serra’s Scientific Examination of the Decline in Music Quality

Besides the decline of music literacy and participation, there has also been a decline in the quality of music which has been proven scientifically by Joan Serra, a postdoctoral scholar at the Artificial Intelligence Research Institute of the Spanish National Research Council in Barcelona. Joan and his colleagues looked at 500,000 pieces of music between 1955-2010, running songs through a complex set of algorithms examining three aspects of those songs:

1. Timbre– sound color, texture and tone quality

2. Pitch– harmonic content of the piece, including its chords, melody, and tonal arrangements

3. Loudness– volume variance adding richness and depth

The results of the study revealed that timbral variety went down over time, meaning songs are becoming more homogeneous. Translation: most pop music now sounds the same. Timbral quality peaked in the ’60s and has since dropped steadily with less diversity of instruments and recording techniques. Today’s pop music is largely the same with a combination of keyboard, drum machine and computer software greatly diminishing the creativity and originality.

Pitch has also decreased, with the number of chords and different melodies declining. Pitch content has also decreased, with the number of chords and different melodies declining as musicians today are less adventurous in moving from one chord or note to another, opting for well-trod paths by their predecessors.

Loudness was found to have increased by about one decibel every eight years. Music loudness has been manipulated by the use of compression. Compression boosts the volume of the quietest parts of the song so they match the loudest parts, reducing dynamic range. With everything now loud, it gives music a muddled sound, as everything has less punch and vibrancy due to compression.


Can Music Be Measured Scientifically?

Of course it can. The science of sound is pretty amazing. The way sound waves behave in the environment is measurable.

Music quality, on the other hand, cannot be measured scientifically.

Picture a deranged scientist attempting to measure civilization’s favorite color with a tape measure.

When people start analyzing music quality through complex algorithms, things begin to ridiculous, for lack of a better word. Fumble back through the discographies of the world’s most prolific songwriters. I’m sure we can all agree that the Beatles didn’t just plug everything into an algorithm. Picture the four of them standing at their posts in a factory assembly line, adding piece after piece and waiting for the machine to spit out the world’s greatest rock n’ roll record.

How does one even separate good music quality from bad music quality? It all really depends on which angle you poke from. Quality can refer to anything, and music is too subjective to sort every song into “good” or “bad”. The list of three criteria that Henschen uses to examine music isn’t a fair pick.

Because…

I have my 3.

You have your 5.

They have their 10.

And so on, and so on, and so on.

You can’t measure music quality this way because no such standard exists.

Audio Compression and the Nature of Dynamics

Using dynamics as a benchmark is a double-edged sword.

Flip the study. Imagine if compressed music was the norm back in 1955, and today’s music wasn’t compressed at all. I’m willing to bet everyone would be shouting the same things from the rooftops like they are now. People would probably complain that music isn’t as “punchy” or “loud” as it used to be back in the day. We can take things a step further and imagine a timeline that begins with digital recordings and ends with analog. It makes no difference. There is no factual information that pinpoints what good music is supposed to sound like.

“Compression boosts the volume of the quietest parts of the song so they match the loudest parts, reducing dynamic range. With everything now loud, it gives music a muddled sound, as everything has less punch and vibrancy due to compression.”

John H.

He’s correct. That’s exactly how audio compressors work. Plus, I can’t argue against his opinion of compressors because that’s just how he perceives compressed music.

Still, I feel like he’s carrying a few misconceptions in his back pocket.

Compressors aren’t artificial sweeteners we sprinkle over a song to make it sound louder. “Less punch” is actually the opposite of what compressors are typically used for. Usually, they’re used to enhance punch, not diminish it. Compressors are really important tools that can actually make music sound clear and more defined, assuming there’s a well-trained audio engineer behind the mixing console.

500,000 songs is a big sample group, but which genres did Joan Serra pull from? Every genre has its own characteristics that make it unique. For example, rap music isn’t typically dynamic, whereas certain styles of jazz are considered highly dynamic. In this sort of study, if the sample group doesn’t reflect a balanced spread of all genres from 1955-2010, then how can anyone expect fair results?

Multitrack Recording and Its Historical Significance

Joan Serra pulls music from 1955 to 2010. Recorded music began as early as the late 19th century, which means he’s also excluding the most critical era of multitrack recording – the late 1940s. Prior to Les Paul’s revolutionary recording techniques, music was still being recorded; the modern multitrack recording innovations just hadn’t hit the scene yet.

Joan Serra’s study ignores the starting point, which happens to be one of the most important eras in music history. To put things in perspective, Robert Johnson, a legendary blues pioneer, first recorded in 1936-37. Serra doesn’t use any music pre-1955. It’s like tossing out your child’s baby pictures. You can’t help but ask, “Where happened to the beginning?”

Things change over the course of decades, and this couldn’t be truer for trends in music history. A scientific study that attempts to measure the perceived degradation of music quality is completely outlandish without at least understanding the chaotic variance of style, the evolution of popular music trends, and the earliest forms of recorded music.

What Do You Think?

Music quality isn’t something that can be measured, because it’s all a matter of taste. My definition of music quality is probably different than yours. Even then, characteristics of a quality rap record probably don’t align with the characteristics of a quality punk rock record. Again, this all varies depending on who is listening. That reality is enough to throw a wrench in this entire study.

There are several other interesting claims in this read. Head over to this link to check it out:
https://www.henschenassoc.com/the-tragic-decline-of-music-literacy/

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