The 3 Key Evolutions of Western Pop, According To Scientists

From 1960 to 2010, three key evolutions of Western pop would forever change the shape of modern music. These findings were published in the Royal Society Open Science journal in 2015, putting quantifiable data into the otherwise intangible recognition of artistic innovation. 

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Because, for the most part, it doesn’t take a rocket scientist to know when a musician has tapped into something special. We feel it in the goosebumps on our arms, the flutters in our stomachs, and how we keep revisiting the songs in our heads long after the last note is played. Nevertheless, some moments of musical ingenuity were more significant than others. 

Researchers analyzed over 17,000 songs to conduct their study. They found that the three key evolutions of Western pop occurred in 1964, 1983, and 1991.

1964: A British-American Collaborative Revolution

The British Invasion was a cultural and musical movement that gained momentum in the mid-1960s as rock and roll bands like the Beatles and the Rolling Stones made their way across the Atlantic to the States. However, the 2015 study argues that an American revolution was well underway in the months before the Fab Four first took the U.S. by storm. Indeed, artists like Chuck Berry, Little Richard, and Sister Rosetta Tharpe had already laid the groundwork for the rise in popularity of electric guitar-driven Rhythm & Blues. 

Still, one can’t discount the speed with which these British bands—and the countless artists who imitated them shortly after—overwhelmed the U.S. music charts. According to the Royal Society study, the first major musical revolution in Western pop occurred in 1964 and marked the birth of the counterculture rock movement.

1983: The Rise of Electronic Music

By the time the 1980s rolled around, electric guitars had already cemented themselves into the musical mainstream. But the rise of a different kind of electronic production—this time, in the form of synthesizers, samplers, and drum machines—would usher in the second key evolution of Western pop by 1983. During this time, researchers noted a significant increase in musical styles associated with new wave, disco, and hard rock. Simultaneously, stylings related to soft rock, country, and R&B decreased in popularity. 

Thus, the second electronic revolution had begun across multiple genres. Pop and alternative artists like Depeche Mode, Gary Numan, and Duran Duran helped popularize the then-novel digital sound in their respective fields. Meanwhile, bands like Van Halen and Rush brought these same sounds to their rock subgenres.

1991: The Year Rap Went Mainstream

Of all three key evolutions of Western pop music, the research team behind the 2015 study cited the 1991 cultural shift as the most significant. On June 22, 1991, N.W.A.’s ‘N****z4life’ ousted R.E.M.’s ‘Out of Time’ as the No. 1 album in the U.S. For the first time in Billboard’s 45-year history, a rap group was topping the chart. From there, pop music would never be the same. Elements of rap and hip-hop would continue to permeate pop music to this day.

According to the London-based researchers, “the rise of rap and related genres appears to be the single most important event that has shaped the musical structure of the American charts in the period that we studied.” Indeed, this third and final Western pop revolution has proven to be more long-lasting, comprehensive, and influential than even the rock and roll boom of the 1960s.

Photo by George Freston/Fox Photos/Getty Images

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