Proof That Music Is Growing Worse

Proof That Music Is Growing Worse

This post originally ran 28 September 2011, and is in the top 20 of all posts. If I ever do it again, there is much I’d expand on. The basic idea is sound. What has become of popular music isn’t.

In 1946, Perry Como sang:

Alone from night to night you’ll find me,
Too weak to break the chains that bind me,
I need no shackles to remind me,
I’m just a prisoner of love!

The song was Prisoner Of Love, penned by Russ Columbo, Clarence Gaskill & Leo Robin. It was Billboard‘s number one song for all of that year.

The lyricism barely extends past that found on a greeting card, but at least the words are intelligible, standard English, and are coupled with music that mates naturally. The song contains 166 words, with a two-quatrain refrain that is sung twice. Overall, 43% of the words in the song are unique.

By 2010, the top song of the year was Tik Tok, sang by somebody called Kesha (who, your author has learned, occasionally replaces the “s” in her name with a dollar sign; in the video of the song linked, the young lady wakes up in the bathtub from the prior evening’s debauchery: how proud her parents must be):

I’m talking about errybody getting crunk, crunk
Boys trying to touch my junk, junk
Gonna smack him if he getting too drunk, drunk
Now, now we goin’ ’til they kick us out, out
Or the police shut us down, down
Police shut us down, down
Po-po shut us down

The English has been replaced by transient slang, the lyricism now trivial. But Kesha does manage to slip in an allusion to female genitalia, a feat which Como never attained. The major refrain repeats six times; a minor one, twice. There are three times as many words in Tik Tok (510) than in Como’s hit, but because of the multiple repetitions, only 28% of them are unique.

In 1948, the top tune was Francis Craig & Kermit Goell’s Near You. This was a standard big band composition: the majority of the tune is instrumental, the vocalist there only to provide contrast. Craig’s playing was sappy but light. As often happened with these standards, the song was taken by others and later turned into something better. Because of the brevity of the vocals, 73% of the lyrics were unique.

In contrast, the 2009 top hit, Boom Boom Pow by the Black Eyed Peas was unsalvageable, because there is no tune to improve. The song consists in a male vocalist repeatedly intoning “Boom boom boom” and “Shi**in’ on yall you with the (Boom boom)” over an even more repetitive beat created on some sort of machine which, all evidence indicates, was broken. A generously counted 23% of the words are unique.

If a pop song had only one word which was repeated multiple times, where it was used like a blunt instrument, over its three-minute lifetime, the chance that that song is bad would be high. Imagine a monotonic single-word chant. The example works with phrases, too. Repeat, for example, “I wanna hold your hand” for two solid minutes, as the Beatles did in 1964, and you’ll have the idea.

Limited vocabulary does not guarantee awfulness: if words aren’t used as a words, but as a means for the vocalist to turn her voice into a raw instrument, then the song can be good or at least passable, as this counter example demonstrates.

A song with lyrics that are not repetitive is more likely to be good, or at least interesting. It increases the chance of a clear story, or message, the possibility of a beginning, middle, and end. Not that pop music, being popular, will ever be accused of sublimity. Strike that: never was accused of sublimity. Nowadays, we are told we are surrounded by genius. When critics are presented with less, they find more to praise.

Of course, one could sing the dictionary for three minutes, a trick which maximizes unique words, but whose results will be atrocious.

Pop music's decline

The picture demonstrates clearly that the lyrics in the top pop songs of the year are being more repetitive through time. On average. In the sense just given, this means pop music is growing worse.

Of the three songs with the lowest proportion of unique words, two are by the Beatles. 1964’s I Want Hold Your Hand (21%), and 1968’s Hey Jude (18%), which featured the lyric “na na na, na na na” sang 40 times. Simple to digest, no? The other worst offender was a song called Too Close by Next in 1998 (18%), which featured the subtle refrain:

Baby when we’re grinding
I get so excited
Ooh, how I like it
I try but I can’t fight it
Oh, you’re dancing real clos
Cuz it’s real, real slow
You’re making it hard for me

There are gaps in the picture. All are instrumentals. The first is 1948: Twelfth Street Rag1 by Pee Wee Hunt. The last time was 1962: the extraordinary melancholy Stranger on the Shore by Acker Bilk, a favorite of the late and lamented Danny Stiles. Tunes like this one, are a nearly forgotten memory.

There hasn’t been an instrumental topping the charts in nearly 50 years. And there are other indications that people are growing less tolerant of music. The tunes in the 1940s and 1950s had a higher proportion of music to words. But by the 2000s, even considering the slight average increase in song time, lyrics—if they can be so generously called that—are crammed into songs. Just look at the rapid increase in the number of words per hit song.

Pop music's decline

Pause to consider this picture. Word count is soaring, but word uniqueness is dropping. We are rapidly approaching the monotonic chant mentioned above. Take this example from 2008, Low by Flo Rida. Featuring, lest we forget, T-Pain. The refrain comprises nearly the entire song—though Flo does slip in the words “pornography” and “Glock”, and we are informed the object of desire has a “Tattoo above her crack”:

Apple Bottom Jeans (Jeans)
Boots with the fur (With the fur)
The whole club lookin at her
She hit the floor (She hit the floor)
Next thing you know
Shawty got low low low low low low low low

No statistics are needed to demonstrate the increase in crudity, decrease in intelligibility, and the now near lack of musicality, the complete lack of beauty. Prisoner Of Love wasn’t art, but it tried to be. Beauty, or anything resembling it, is now ruthlessly expunged. The only emotions celebrated are raw, brustish, animal-like. Lyrics used to tell stories, or express desire, but not just for the sake of it. Reasons for the desire were required.

The most rebelliousness song before rock and roll struck was in 1951, where in the top hit of the year Nat King Cole could lament that “They try to tell us we’re too young.” By 2004, Usher (featuring Lil Jon & Ludacris) could announce in that year’s top song, “These women al on the prowl, if you hold the head steady I’m a milk the cow.”

The word “love” used to make regular appearances in popular tunes. It’s there in Low, but to express the idea, “I love women exposed.” It also found it’s way into 2003’s biggest hit In Da Club by 50 Cent, who warbled, “I’m into having sex, I ain’t into making love.” He also used the vulgar word for the same act. The Beatles’s first hit song was more repetitive, but it at least expressed a sweet sentiment.

Another element lacking in modern efforts is complexity, which is the converse of repetitiveness. Consider the top tune of 1954, Kitty Kallen singing Little Things Mean A Lot. It’s not Verdi, but a whole suite of different instruments, moods, harmonies, decibel levels can be heard.

Then try to listen to 2002’s top offering How You Remind Me by Nickleback, far from the worst of the lot. There’s hardly any difference in tone from start to finish, the sounds are muddled, the voice filtered. It is mushy and limited. It is a much simpler song. And still to come were Boom Boom Pow and Tik Tok.

People now like their music to do away with all necessity of thought or contemplation. If a guiding, demanding beat isn’t there to lead them obediently through a tune, they don’t like it. Compare the original version of the (not top hit) Nat King Cole’s rendition of Lush Life with this highly praised “re-mix.” In comes repetition, out goes subtlety. The song has been turned into pablum. The depth of Billy Strayhorn is too much for the modern mind.

What’s to come? If the trends we’ve noted continue, we can look forward to an increase in crudity, lyrics with blatant narcissism, a further weakening of the demand that a song contain music, a return to neolithic simplicity. The top song by 2020 will be titled, Sex, a work with a damning, unchanging beat, with lyric comprised of the lone word “Sex,” repeated until the matter inside the listener’s skull has been nicely puréed.


1Only the Lord knows how the person who posted this song to Youtube matched that graphic.

Your authors’ number two son compiled the songs and lyrics.


  1. Cris

    I suspect that we’ll consider ourselves fortunate if the word repeated in 2020 is actually ‘Sex’, and not some alternative.

  2. Welcome to Idiocracy.

    Excellent breakdown. Reminds me of a more professorial version of Steve Allen seriously intoning the lyrics to disco hits in the 70’s. It was complete deadpan and it was hilarious.

  3. Mack

    My theory is that modern pop music is laced with subliminal messages to fool people into liking it.

  4. Greg Sabo

    I mean, why don’t you just listen to Shubert or something

  5. robert burns

    Minor nitpick.Technology changed. The 1948 technology was 78 rpm vinyl with songs about 3 minutes long. Today songs can (and are) much longer in time. So number of words per song may not be the appropriate measure.

    And I agree that music has gone downhill.

  6. I’m sure the same applies to church music. Contemporary choruses don’t have anywhere near the vocabulary or theological depth of “A Mighty Fortress Is Our God.”

  7. Briggs

    robert burns,

    It is a good nitpick. I did cover it, but not in depth. It turns out that even though songs can be longer, those that made the top position were about the same length.

  8. Matt

    I wasn’t completely convinced, until you mentioned Nickleback.

    If you want instrumentals, you gotta listen to genres that still have guitar solos!

  9. amir

    I just Ctr+F ed your article to see the effect of Zipf law but I did not find any! the decrease of words should be compared with some base literature rt?!

  10. Popular music’s yin and yang are memorability, best served by repetition, and interest, best served by new ideas and less repetition. This concept only works with a moderately well-educated listener base.

    Today’s listeners are a rare breed in a capitalist society: Too stupid to earn money, yet possessing a plenitude of money to spend on “music” that is either insipid or brutish, and, in either case, requiring no real ability to perform.

    I’ve attempted to get into this groove. I’ve written verse one of a strong rap:

    Yo’ SIS-tuh, yo’ MOM-ma, yo’ AUN-tie and yo’ CUZ-zin;
    Da WIM-minz in yo’ FAM-uh-lee, I MUS-sa had a DUZ-zin…

  11. JH

    I can’t help but wonder if meaning of love has changed over the years.

  12. It’s true that many of today’s “top hits” contain crude, unsingable lyrics. They are the top hits because they are popular in dance clubs, and people listen to them on the radio and buy them on iTunes because they like to be reminded of how much fun they had dancing.

    But there is a huge body of Very Good popular music (appealing melodies and lyrics you can repeat, performed by artists that have a strong following), not represented in the top hits. I suspect (but did not verify) that the top hits of the late 40s represents a larger proportion of available popular music of the time. Today’s top hits are just a thin layer of crud floating on top of a vast pool of available listening material, much of which might appeal to you or me.

  13. PaddikJ

    Good for you, William – you’ve finally provided a degree of quantification to your music rants and it’s very compelling.

    Chris Hemedinger says:

    “I suspect that the top hits of the late 40s represents a larger proportion of available popular music of the time. Today’s top hits are just a thin layer of crud floating on top of a vast pool of available listening material . . .”

    Absolutely perfect summation. It’s so good that I hesitate to expand, but feel I must: It’s not just music, but all of pop culture which has the thin layer of crud – the cultural craposphere. I ignore it as best I can.

    Slightly OT, but I’ve had this notion for years regarding technology that there is some sort of universal law that the sophistication of the delivery technology and the sophistication of the content must always be inversly proportional.

  14. JJD

    My eminently employable son, a classical musician, is sometimes in despair over the quantity of garbage being published and promoted as ‘art’ and ‘music’. I remind him that the technology and the marketing channels developed to handle that ocean of crap has made possible a flowering of recorded classical and early music of exquisite quality. Not to defend the crap at all, but there are some useful side effects.

  15. DAV


    You seem to dwell on the vocal part and continually ignore the rest. Why is that? Because it can’t be counted? You should put down the statistical hammer occasionally — not everything is a nail. It’s the sum of all that parts of a musical piece that matters.

    Chris Hemedinger may have a point. People aren’t listening for dinner entertainment. It’s dance music. When dancing you aren’t likely to be listening to the story in the words. The words are inconsequential like a form of scat. Charlie Parker was often berated for his taste for country music (IOW: that junk). When asked why he listened to it, he replied it was because of the stories being told. Not all bread is bad because it isn’t buttered and a hamburger isn’t necessarily better than a PBJ.

    As for good/bad, it’s a matter of taste which is quite hard to measure. A large part of music is being able to anticipate so music must have repetition. Part of the anticipation come from familiarity. That implies similarity between works. Nothing stands out as good by itself.

    Often, it’s the nuances between pieces that make a work great. You don’t hear the nuances if you are generally unfamiliar with whatever genre. If you grew up in the jazz age you would be quite familiar with its form(s) and could pick out the nuances with ease. Taste is almost always acquired.

    You would think popularity would imply goodness. Yet you seem to be saying that popularity is somehow a mark of mediocrity. By your apparent definition, no one would universally agree with your measures of good./bad.

    The Doris Day song was quite love-ly if we were to take her word for it.

  16. DAV

    JJD, My eminently employable son, a classical musician,

    Eminently employable? How large is that classical market?

  17. Ken


    I would argue that some of the word repetitions you’ve counted aren’t. Example, the “na na na…” in the Beatles’ “Hey Jude” is, arguably, not really a “word” so much as a harmonic sound incorporated into the overall rhythm (like humming, etc.). If one accepts that, the net effect would be, it appears. to further reinforce the overall trend noted.

    Sans the analysis presented, the hit series South Park essentially parodied the same issue via its presentation of the Timmy Band….characterized by a wheelchair-bound retarded kid that can only say “Timmy!” at random intervals, who by chance, replaces the lead vocalist of some band, which as a result becomes a raging success…..with all songs having the single word randomly vocalized of “Timmy!”

    So there you have it. Your latest analysis is, at some level, an embellishment of a South Park theme.

  18. JJD


    Not to distract from Matt’s topic here, the situation where I live (Victoria BC Canada) is that the ‘music’ that is popular here is the usual T&A + obscenities + noise, but at the same time there is a symphony orchestra, a very good music conservatory, a university music department, and numerous community choirs and orchestras. So while the local hockey arena is mostly used for noise concerts and the entire city was recently treated to a high-volume ‘rock music’ festival hosted in a local baseball stadium, there is also a large enough population of classical music listeners to support the classical musicians. Worldwide there is a large enough population of classical music listeners to support musicians by purchasing recordings and videos on the web. In the middle of all this, my son has a steady gig as a church organist, gets a reasonable number of performing gigs (solo or in groups), and can work as much as he wants to as an accompanist. He has never had a McJob.

    The big question is whether the general fashion of stupidity and grossness will grow to the point where the population of classical music (and even Perry Como) lovers will get too small to support musicians locally. In Canada, as I see it, the answer is “probably not.”

    Finally, to get closer to Matt’s subject, I think that a major explanation for the stupidity and repetitiousness of pop music today is alcohol and drug use. Heavy boom-boom-boom and word repetition may seem just sublime if you are zonked out of your gourd.

  19. Briggs


    People were dancing to Perry Como, too. Buying and dancing to music is not a new phenomenon. Buying and dancing to atrocious music is. So I don’t accept Hemedinger’s argument, except to agree with him that good music does exist and takes little effort to find. However, if you feel their are nuances to be found in the top songs of the past decade, some shades of importance I must have missed, I’m willing to tutored.

    The statistics I provide are on the lyrics, true. But today’s analysis comprises the music as well, just not statistically. I’m actually working on a way to statistically describe the music. But since the data sources are so different, it’s a more difficult task. Preliminary findings indicate that being deaf can no longer be considered a curse.

  20. DAV


    You are still left with the problem of defining ‘good’. You can’t go by vote since that would make it ‘popular’ and that alone seems a priori to preclude ‘goodness’. You shouldn’t use the definition (whatever it is) of critics because perforce they must appear discriminating to prove their ‘sophistication’ to deserve the title of expert.

    Think about this: if popular music is bad why do so many people listen to it? You seem to be saying it’s good if us Patricians like it and it somehow gets soiled if it’s enjoyed by the Plebes. Incidentally, that is where the term “common time” for 4/4 comes from. It was the time signature of popular music (as opposed to the obviously more sophisticated 3/4).

    Is classical music good? I don’t like some of it so it’s a hard question to answer but I know ‘good’ when I hear it. It means ‘I like that’. In any case, my definition of ‘good’ applies only to me. I wouldn’t think of pressing it upon anyone else.

  21. DAV

    Maybe you should be trying to identify “mediocre”/”poluar” and let “Good” and “Atrocious” be outliers? There’s money in guessing “popular”. That’s what A&R guys do.

  22. I agree with your conclusion, but I can’t agree that the statistics are meaningful — except for the decreasing frequency of the word “love”. If you’re going to judge the quality of a lyric by it’s percentage of unique words, the most worthless song I could quickly find, “Go Forth and F***”, matches Perry Como at 47%. (It’s not worth a listen, and I don’t recommend Googling it.)

    In a judgment of artistic value, a statistical approach is almost certainly wrong.

  23. Thanks for picking my best tried and true croon tune for your prime example. Mrs. Dweet loves it, and has probably requested it a couple of hundred times in our 40+++ years. The stories I could tell . . .

    @ JH hit it. “I can’t help but wonder if meaning of love has changed over the years.” It has as far as popular music is concerned.

    @ John’s comment re: church music is somewhat true, except – and as JJD may have picked up on – good lyrical music is alive and well on the church front, all over the world aamof.

  24. Jon Peltier

    Popular music always seems to be the crappiest, lowest common denominator stuff. There is always good music which is unknown to those who follow popular music. All that you’ve shown is that today’s bad, popular music (Kesha and Black Eyed Peas) are worse than the bad, popular music of decades ago (Perry Como).

  25. DAV


    The top song by 2020 will be titled, Sex …

    Not the top song but Berlin’s Sex (I’m a…) hit #5 in Canada in 1982. It was banned by a lot of radio stations in the U.S. Incidentally, it was released on the flip side of Metro which has some interesting emotion changes (sadness to anger) over a love rejection. I happen to like both — in particular, Metro. Not the only reason for liking it but Metro has a click-clack in the background appearing at odd times which increases the feeling of riding along on the Paris Metro with the singer creating empathy.…%29

  26. DAV

    Jon Peltier ,

    Not to pick on you but don’t you think Popular music always seems to be the crappiest, lowest common denominator stuff. is a strange definition? Well, of course not, you said it. But it equates to it has something everybody likes it so it must be bad. There’s a lot of that going around in the above posts and the blog post is a major contributor.

  27. JH

    Human voice is not my favorite instrument. My kids think the music is less meaningful without vocals. Maybe songs with lyrics allow them to interpret the songs more readily. I am not crazy about some of the songs my kids listen to, well, somehow those songs resonate with them. (My older daughter plays classical piano but she dislikes classical music. She might like it in the future though.)

    Maybe the depth of Kesha is too much for the non-modern me.

    Anyway, I sure hope that the number or the fraction of unique words in a song is not an objective measure of music quality and that the top pop song doesn’t represent the best pop music or the music of the time.

    And, hey, Mr. Briggs, the rule of repetition is very powerful.

    49er, I believe you.

  28. Jeremy Das

    Vulgar ≠ talentless

  29. John R T

    I think you insult sounds of the other beings: “animal-like.”

  30. Greg Cavanagh


    I believe it’s called popular music because the record companies advertising their products call it “popular music”. It may in fact NOT be popular with the buyers, but new. They have their old favourites, and this new album is from their favourite band. But classifying any particular song in the popular music category, doesn’t make it so.

    Also the discos will play new music from whatever bands are currently selling records. They won’t (usually) play music, say 12 months old. So what they play isn’t conducive to knowing what is good, it’s simply newer. And people will dance to anything with a beat. Its not proof of goodness.

  31. The term “popular music” has nothing to do with the popularity, or lack of popularity, of a piece of music. It is used to distinguish serious music (fine art) from popular music (art or folk art). Rarely if ever does a piece qualify as both.

    Serious music is usually at least fifty years ahead of popular music, particularly in the quality of listening required to enjoy it. Popular music doesn’t seek to bring about anything truly new. Its purveyors realize that evolution, not revolution, is the key to the success of popular music. If a popular piece actually showcased groundbreaking work in melodic or harmonic content, it would NOT be well received by its audience.

    Serious music, on the other hand, often brings forward new tonalities, etc.

  32. Just for fun substitute the word “science” for “music” in junior juniors last comment and it makes almost as much sense. Is that coincidental or serendipitous?

  33. Michael Larkin

    Dr. Briggs,

    A couple of songs sung by Kathleen Ferrier must be way up there in the words stake, for example –

    “I will walk with my love” (my personal favourite of hers, with a tingle factor of 100%):

    “Now sleeps the crimson petal”, with words by Tennyson:

    Yet despite this, one of the most repetetive and banal songs I can think of, Daft Punk’s “Around the world” is also one of my favourites – but must be viewed with the video, which is imo what makes it a work of art:

    Many operatic and choral pieces are highly repetetive – I can remember singing Handel’s Hallelujah chorus, for example, with the top sopranos at school. My favourite version of this bar none is the Flash mob rendition:

    And what about singin’ in the rain, sung by Gene Kelly?:

    Brilliant, though there aren’t many lyrics and a fair number of doody-loo-doody’s.

    When it comes to music, there ain’t no accountin’ for taste.

  34. DAV

    HP Jr^2,

    Perhaps, but if it is as prevalent as Matt thinks then “popular music” must be close to equaling “popular”. Not to mention that “popular music” outsells just about everything else which also indicates popularity. Other than that, I agree with you.

  35. Dweet — Thanks for the reply! In my mind, there is a direct equivalence: popular music; popular science. I think, in this case, “popular” means “of the people (masses).” On the other hand, I could be full of a well-known substance. (It’s been known to happen…)

    DAV — I appreciate your writing back, and, as someone in my family might say, we’re in complete agreeance. When you take popular music as a whole, everything from country to rap and beyond, it is more “popular” than the fine art sort of music, the serious music.

    My comment had to do with a single piece of music, and I qualified it for that reason: There has to be, within popular music, some very unpopular pieces, given the potential consumers versus the actual. A recording of popular music might sell hundreds of copies, which makes it a total bust, but it’s still called popular music. The paradox is apparent, but not actual.

  36. Rich

    You’re not alone analysing music. Check out Mind you, these guys are getting paid for it.

    A top ten because we love top tens:

    Top 10 most annoying songs

    By their reckoning, these are the top ten catchiest songs of all time:

    We are the Champions, Queen (1977)
    Y.M.C.A, The Village People (1978)
    Fat Lip, Sum 41 (2001)
    The Final Countdown, Europe (1986)
    Monster, The Automatic (2006)
    Ruby, The Kaiser Chiefs (2007)
    I’m Always Here, Jimi Jamison (1996)
    Brown Eyed Girl, Van Morrison (1967)
    Teenage Dirtbag, Wheatus (2000)
    Livin’ on a Prayer, Bon Jovi (1986)


    You’re using the wrong data set and the wrong baseline period.

    If you use the GRAMMY AWARD winners instead of best sellers, and start in 1960 you’ll see that the number of unique words, now, is MUCH higher now than then.

    This is of course because we’re talking about performances by Percy Faith, two by Henry Mancini and another by Herb Albert — tunes with no lyrics at all.

    Anyone who argues is a denier opposing the …

    (wait for it…)


  38. Chris

    William, these are all valid points but you forgot to mention one thing: Kesha looks way better in “short shorts” than Russ Columbo, Clarence Gaskill & Leo Robin ever would!

  39. Ken

    I ran the stats on the Hallelujah chorus: only 14.45% of the words are unique. Clearly Handel was a hack. Thank goodness Ke$ha has better writers, ones who know how to get their percentages higher.
    Ken Stephenson
    Russell Professor of Music Theory
    The University of Oklahoma

  40. Briggs


    Thanks! Makes me happy I merely said repetition increases the chance of, but does not guarantee, badness. And that, sometimes, repetition can be used to good effect. Wouldn’t you agree?

  41. Sarah Elizabeth Blaskow is an Australian singer-songwriter and musician. In 2007, she won the ‘Best Pop Release’ for What the Sea Wants, the Sea Will Have at the ARIA Music Awards, which peaked at #7 on the ARIA Albums Chart. Her recent album, As Day Follows Night, reached #5 and won the ‘Best Female Artist’ at the 2009 ARIA Awards.

    I don’t give a fiddler’s fart for her popularity; I do enjoy her singing and her lyrics. The Git & Mrs Git go to a concert she will be performing at St David’s Cathedral later this month and expect to be well-entertained.

    I also note that sexual allusion in pop culture is hardly new:

    Hamlet: Lady, shall I lie in your lap?
    Ophelia: No, my lord.
    Hamlet: I mean my head upon your lap.
    Ophelia: Aye, my lord.
    Hamlet: Or did you think I meant country matters?
    Ophelia: I think nothing, my lord.
    Hamlet: That’s a fair thought, to lie between maid’s legs.

  42. PaddikJ

    Repetition is absolutely essential to music and poetry, and sometimes even prose. Rhythm IS repetition. Like its close cousin, ritual, it comes from our reptilian hind-brain. It encompasses everything from the subtly repeating chord progressions of a late-Beethoven string quartet to the hypnotic and slowly transforming patterns of Steve Reich’s Drumming.

    So, no; repetition is not sometimes used to good effect. It is always used to good effect except when in the hands of the untalented.

    One of my favorite examples of repetitive good effect:

    This is the way the world will end
    This is the way the world will end
    This is the way the world will end
    Not with a bang, but a whimper

  43. Cam S

    Not to start off negative, but the title of this article is misleading. I didn’t read any of the comments, so I’m not sure if anyone said this already. The title claims that music (in general) is getting worse. I agree that mainstream music is getting worse because all teens (main music consumers) want is a catchy tune with racey hedonistic lyrics, but certainly not all music is getting worse.

    Also, the comparison of the two songs. Very good choice of songs, but you could see that the range of years is very great and doesn’t help with your argument. Maybe a progression of lyrics for top songs every ten years would have been more suitable.

    On another note, I don’t know of your music library, but expanding your taste and looking for current artists could help restore your faith in humanity’s culture. Looking for songs categorized by ‘Songwriter’ or ‘Singer’ may devistatingly proof against this article. To give an example: Kings of Convenience – Freedom and its Owner from Declaration of Dependence (2009)

    “Show a view to someone who chose to live his whole life in a cave
    He’ll raise his arms to protect his eyes from learning
    And the blindness to which he belongs
    This time it’s me it’s me
    Cascades of chances i’ll just let them be
    The unfamiliar is right below our eyes
    Don’t look for what we know
    The unfamiliar is right below our eyes”

    Note the lyrics talk about people’s unwillingness to be introduced to new culture because they are comfortable with what they are familiar with. Which could easily be the cause of all this pop crap seen on Billboard top today.

    Lastly, I’d like to say I really appreciated the article and the statistics. I’m glad to see that other people realize the average decline in the quality of music. -Cam

  44. PB


    When you say repetition – I assume you only consider lyrical repetition and not melodic, harmonic or rhythmic elements.

    In a song with melody and lyrics unlike a rap song, repetition can be made interesting with the use of musical variations in successive repetitions even while using the same set of words. For example, in Bob Dylan’s “?A Hard Rain?s A-gonna Fall”, the same repeated lines are made interesting by use of melodic varitation:

    And it?s a hard
    And it?s a hard
    It?s a hard
    And it?s a hard
    It?s a hard rain?s a-gonna fall

    For a listen:

    Many rap songs do use repetition with lyrical variations in their lyrics: One example would be from the “Drop It Like It?s Hot” by Snoop Dog:

    When the pimp?s in the crib, ma
    Drop it like it?s hot,
    Drop it like it?s hot
    Drop it like it?s hot
    When the pigs try to get at ya
    Park it like it?s hot
    Park it like it?s hot
    Park it like it?s hot
    And if a nigga get a attitude
    Pop it like it?s hot
    Pop it like it?s hot
    Pop it like it?s hot

    The repeated use of the lines with minor variations and a catchy rhythm pattern makes this section interesting even though there isn’t any melody to speak of.

    Interesting analysis though, but I would also argue its not just the lack of unique words but use of rich figurative language and interesting themes which is one of major components of such banal songs.

  45. Good music is still being created and there are still people capable of appreciating good music. But the record companies and radio stations must court the most populous demographics. More listeners means more money. And it’s a simple fact that there are more musically unsophisticated people than there are musically sophisticated people. Quality programming for the sake of quality was a good thing but it was costly. Consider the cable channel A&E which originally aired plays and operas but now airs Duck Dynasty. American media thrives on selling the equivalent of junk food.

  46. Sheri

    “People now like their music to do away with all necessity of thought or contemplation.” This is basically always the case. Music mimics society. Western music in the past celebrated the victories of the cowboys. Big Band went with good times and good feelings. Soul was a response to the racial overtones of society. I fail to understand why someone who is very bright and understands logic would not find it reassuring that as society burns down to hell, music goes with it. You should be frightened if this was not happening.

  47. Gary

    Fun little song out of the 70s:

    Ain’t got no trouble in my life,
    No foolish dream to make me cry.
    I’m never frightened or worried,
    I know I’ll always get by.
    I heat up (I heat up)
    I cool down (I cool down)
    When something gets in my way I go round it.
    Don’t let life get me down
    Gonna take life the way that I found it.
    I got the music in me
    I got the music in me
    I got the music in me
    I got the music in me
    I got the music in me
    I got the music in me
    They say that life is a circle (circle)
    But that ain’t the way that I’ve found it.
    Gonna move in a straight line (ooh)
    Keeping my feet firmly on the ground.
    I heat up (I heat up)
    I cool down (I cool down)
    I got words in my head so I say them.
    Don’t let life get me down,
    Catch a hold of my blues and just play them.
    – The Kiki Dee Band

  48. Zundfolge

    This discussion is always ends up laden with “Golden Age Fallacy”.

    Pop has always been the lowest common denominator. Sure there were some great, complex and lyrically rich pop songs in the past (and frankly there are today as well) but most pop music is basically musical junk food and always has been.

    Now the introduction of hip-hop has lowered that lowest common denominator a bit, but we’re also living in a new golden age of Prog but nobody notices because they’re watching American Idol.

    The truth is that music is much more fragmented today so the “top popular songs” are listened to by less people today because everyone gets their music via streaming and listens to what they already know they like, they’re not listening to new music.

    Now all that said, there are some things that make modern music worse that people don’t understand and that’s the computer. Tracks (even from acoustic instruments) are stretched and squished and “quantized” to the grid so that every bar becomes a movable, plug and play piece that can be re-arranged with a few mouse clicks. This makes remixing easier and makes poor musicianship easier to hide, but it also destroys the human touch to music by making everything “perfect”.

    Rick Beato explains it much better than I can. (he further explains it by quantizing John Bonham here: )

  49. Plantagenet

    This post will really age me! As far as my own, near complete, immersion in various forms of pop and rock are concerned 1990 was the watershed year. A number of, what I still see, as problems reached critical mass;
    1- Innovations like the Sony Walkman, and later iPods, had turned music from a shared, to a private experience. Effectively making each person their own DJ, and largely killing the album as a conceptual whole. I can still remember running to the record store for the new Springsteen/Clash/Bowie record. Listening to it as an album, and having late night gab sessions pulling them apart with friends. Does this even happen nowadays?
    2- The CD overtakes vinyl. Vinyl remains the sin qua non of formats. It’s got what British call bottom. The last note hangs in the air rather than simply dying. To put it another way most formats since vinyl seem to have clarity as their driving purpose. Vinyl understands it should be depth.
    3- Nirvana. Of course there had been bands which were driven by pessimism, lots of them, even nihilism, but Nirvana brought it into the mainstream. The fact that most of what they did, and what they stood for had already been done by bands like Joy Division ( who also had a leader with serious issues who committed suicide) passed most people by as those bands had largely been fringe players. Anyway if your mantra is “Nothing matters” and you remain true to it…where do you go? I am convinced that if Nirvana had produced another record it would have been awful or a sell out…what else could it be?
    All of this is simply a lead up to allow me to bring up Mark Twain’s remark about Wagners music.
    “It’s not as bad as it sounds”.

  50. DAV

    Even in ambient music there is weirdness. E.g., a Greensleeves cover with a continuous background warbling for originality. And another that ends with a sound that presumably is someone trudging along on a gravel road but sounds more like a carrot being chewed in your ear.

    But the real problem is that over time, only the best survive and those are the ones remembered. There was undoubtedly truly awful music in the past (ever hear of Bee Bop or jazz pieces that amounted to screaming?) but the memorable ones stand out.

    Another thing is that music is an acquired taste. Try listening to non-western music found in other countries or other times. To many westerners, they sound like noise. Music is a form of language. There really are no objective standards.

    Speaking of language, my favorite example Georgian word is gvprtskvni. Yes, it only has one vowel. Try weaving lyrics around that.

  51. DAV

    Sometimes even a good song doesn’t make the charts.
    An example is 10-cc’s (of all groups!) Dreadlock Holiday.
    Never got about #44 on the Billboard Hot 100.
    Excellent composition although most YouTube postings of it suffer from poor sound quality and editing.

    Another was Shivaree’s Goodnight Moon.
    Most people have heard it only during the credits of Kill Bill: volume 2 if at all.

  52. Dude! You gotta shift over to country music, hip-hop and rap are rotting your brain.

    I mean, where else but country music are you gonna find a song with the evergreen title “I’m So Miserable Without You, It’s Almost Like You Were Here!” …


  53. Kyle

    I was with you until you dissed The Beatles.

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