Pop music has been dumbing itself down and becoming more formulaic for decades. Researchers know this, and have published plenty of papers proving their case.

At the Goldsmiths University of London, a team there conducted one study published in the Journal Psychology of Aesthetics, Creativity and the Arts. It sought to understand what makes a song catchy. And as insightful as the findings might be, what it exposes of the industry isn’t necessarily positive.  

“[The research] could help aspiring song-writers or advertisers write a jingle everyone will remember for days or months afterwards,” the leader of the research Dr. Jakubowki said. But it does little to offer substance in an increasingly washed-down industry.

With the success of songs like “Despacito” — 2017’s most successful song — one would think musicians don’t really need any more help churning out mind-numbing earworms by the dozens, let alone any boosted by brain science.

Though as any form of art is, music is highly subjective by nature. The music industry selling it, however, is far from it. It’s a carefully structured business with the operational model of a large, money-hungry corporation, imposing the tastes and products that serve its needs for raking in the most cash.

Slowly, over the last several decades, the industry's habits have shifted an entire culture toward a direction that leads to simpler and fewer options. A music scene that offers nothing but simplicity inevitably lowers the bar altogether.

Modern music is kind of like fast food — sometimes it’s fine to grab the unhealthiest burger over the most sophisticated dish, but to do it every day, and the results become more and more prominent.

Recently, researchers compared songs created through the years on three different ingredients: timbre (which “accounts for the sound color, texture, or tone quality”), pitch (which “roughly corresponds to the harmonic content of the piece, including its chords, melody, and tonal arrangements”) and loudness (which "doesn’t refer merely to volume but to overall noise that disguises any musical phrases, or the lack thereof").

In it, modern music was found to be inferior to older music on all three aspects, with modern performers employing a far more limited musical arsenal.

Lyrics, too, are another area of music studies have found to be getting more and more dumbed down.

One such effort assessed the lyrics of No. 1 hits over the past few years and found them to average around a third-grade reading level. And while the author of the study admits the methodology is far from perfect, and fails to take into account crucial factors like lyric metaphors while at the same time being influenced by word length, its findings don’t exactly stand out as preposterous.

Another paper from researchers at the Medical University of Vienna, titled “Instrumental Complexity of Music Genres and Why Simplicity Sells,” alludes to similar ideas.

“The idea that lyrical intelligence seems to have lowered over the past decade is interesting, and in line with our findings, that musical instrumentation complexity is diminishing,” says Stefan Thurner, one of the authors.  

Along with lyrics’ intelligence declining, their ego-centrism is on the rise. Another paper, comparing the lyrics of songs from 1980-2007, demonstrates that the use of words related to self-focus and antisocial behavior have increased at the cost of words related to other-focus, social interactions and positive emotion.

There seem to be too many patterns surfacing in studies to ignore, and put into the context of Taylor Swift canonizing her month-long teenage flings or the all-around class of “Anaconda,” distrust in entertainment begins to sound less and less like the ramblings of a grumpy old grandpa.

But it isn’t as easy as avoiding new music to stay pure. So often in music, tastes rarely dictate the market. Labels use radio as a platform to actually turn the songs they want popular through repetition, rather than radio playing songs that are popular and valuable in the market to its consumers. Payola — the act of paying a station to play specific songs (the gesture actually banned from radio long ago, but often hidden amongst streaming platforms) — isn't exactly gone, either.

It’s like a subtle version of the chicken and the egg paradox; only labels own the chicken and the egg — they just give you what they want to give you and do so in large quantities until you've given in.

A study titled “Music and Emotions in the Brain: Familiarity Matters” found this to be true. After a while, our brains develops a taste — or at least a tolerance — for music they’re continuously exposed to. This is why after a while you may actually catch yourself thinking: “Hey, this Cardi B song isn't that bad, it’s actually kinda catchy.”

Another found the context music appears in also plays a significant role in the response it evokes. On nights out, many of us are inevitably bombarded by the same popular songs over and over again. Chances are sooner or later they’ll start bringing positive associations.

This is why many chart songs share similar “subtle” sound effects like the classic signature Lil John-type “Yeah!” heard in every club across the world. Or the air-horn. Or just a repetitive cliché sung in place of where a chorus is supposed to be.

Some say less is more, but this philosophy might not really apply to modern music, unfortunately. Rather, less becomes lesser and lesser, until the only thing left from music is background noise for shaking asses.

Instead of giving musicians new ways to brainwash us, perhaps science would be of better use if it channeled its efforts elsewhere.

[cover photo by Hallux Makenzo from Pexels // originally published November 16, 2017]