The Science of Pop Music

Pop music is meant to be popular. But what makes certain pop music tracks catchy? Why is it that some become hits and others don’t? These are the questions to definitely explore.

To begin with, we need to look back into the history of pop music. Pop music began to gain traction in the 1950s. There was an increased emphasis on an artist’s talent rather than formal artistic qualities, recording, production and technology. They focused on popular trends rather than progressive developments.

Early pop music got its character by adopting certain attributes of other genres with a few examples being their dependence on hip hop for rhythm, soul and gospel for vocal harmonies, jazz for instrumentation, classical for orchestration, backing from electronic music and spoken elements from rap.

This evolution of pop music continued with a trend of organised homogeneity and would rely on elementary trend analysis and promising artists to produces hit music. Then, Shazam happened.  Shazam was founded by Avery Yang and some business graduates. Initially overwhelmed by the task’s complexity, Avery broke his head to figure out how to capture a full song. Then it hit him. Rather than capturing the whole song, he found out how to generate an acoustic footprint for each track. Shazam has 500 million downloads with 30 million songs streamed, making it one of the world’s most popular apps.

This massive usage gave Shazam data to predict hit songs and non-hits by studying all 20 million search queries. Shazam also generated a map of the most Shazam’s tracks in different places. Find, a tool with a six-figure subscription amount determines a possible hit pop song in a similar way, helping agencies scout for talent through scanning certain metrics like accounts with the maximum Twitter followers, Facebook mentions and radio exposure. Music analytics startup called Next Big Sound scans for Spotify listens to Instagram mentions and other traces of digital fandom.

The recent breakthroughs in technology could diminish the importance of an artist’s physical presence. I even debated with a friend about a Freddie Mercury hologram that performs like the late artist himself. But there was a factor that remained relatively unexplored: Billboard rankings. Researchers toyed around with Billboard rankings by giving higher rankings to unpopular songs and the opposite for popular songs. Interestingly enough they discovered that rankings do affect a user’s song consumption as the unpopular songs were downloaded more than the popular ones.

These incumbencies in data-oriented music distribution are probably going to lead to a trend of organised drabness and monotony. The worst bit is that it’s not the artists’ faults but our brains, which are wired to prefer melodies we heard before. Think about it, you’re not going to listen to a music track foreign to you for comfort. Thereby explaining why we get hooked to catchy melodies.

As listeners, we can end this by having a sense of heightened awareness when listening to music, ultimately leading us away from mindless auditory engagement to a state of mind where we actually listen.

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