New Study Shows Melodies Have Become Simpler Over Time: What Does This Mean for the Future of Music?

Computational musicologists at Queen Mary University of London have conducted a study of modern melodies and found them lacking a certain complexity present in older music. The study was published on July 4 in Scientific Reports and isolated three “melodic revolutions,” according to the report. These revolutions—taking place in 1975, 1996, and 2000—led to the progressive simplification of melodies when the group studied a song’s rhythm and pitch.

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Beginning in 1950, the group studied the top five songs on the Billboard chart at the time, all the way to 2023. Studying the rhythm and pitch of each batch of songs, the researchers found that the melodic complexity steadily declined as the years went by. “Conservatively, [rhythm and pitch] decreased by 30 percent,” said Madeline Hamilton, the grad student who led the study, according to a report from The New York Times.

While the decrease in melodic complexity is not a new phenomenon, the study showed that there has been an increase in notes played per second in modern songs. The researchers attributed this to technological advancements in music.

“Today, with the accessibility of digital music production software and libraries of millions of samples and loops, anyone with a laptop and an internet connection can create any sound they can imagine,” the study states. However, Hamilton urged caution when comparing the value of these songs.

“It’s not that music is getting less complex,” said Hamilton. “The melody is getting less complex, but maybe the chords are getting more complex, or maybe the production.”

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What Does This Mean for the Future of Music?

While there is no more inherent value in a complex song versus a simple song, what does this trend mean for the future of music? As stated above, there are many moving parts that go into studies like this. While one part of a song may become simplified, other parts may become more complex, or vice versa.

There doesn’t seem to be any fear that melodies will become so simple that they cease to be melodies at all, if that’s what you’re worried about. Melody is basically what is pleasing to hear in a song, the “heart and soul” of a piece, according to composer Oscar Osicki of the Inside the Score YouTube channel.

That heart and soul is what gets songs stuck in our heads, has us humming the same bars of “Please Please Please” over and over again. Music is as varied as the people who make it, and there are plenty of complex melodies in the world if you look beyond the Billboard Hot 100. For the sake of the study, though, it’s easy to see where pop music has become more and more simplified.

Can pop artists dig themselves out from under this trend? What about country singers? Is there the possibility for future complexity in these genres, which have been dominated by simplicity for so long? Or have we as listeners simply begun to reject complexity and embrace the next new earworm?

Featured Images by Rischgitz/Getty Images; Emma McIntyre

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