Too loud; all the same

A Spanish research team has reached a conclusion that many have long suspected, although they may simultaneously suspect that they’re turning into fuddy-duddies. Today’s pop music, declares artificial intelligence expert Joan Serra, suffers from diminished timbral and chordal palettes, and is “baked” to be louder than ever.

If this is true, it’s really a pity. I confess that I am not terribly interested in pop music, not because I consider it an inferior art form to classical music, but because I spend my day making music and teaching music. When I get home, the last thing I want to do is listen to more music, so I don’t really make the effort to stay apprised of the latest popular songs. The ubiquitous background music I hear in shopping malls and cafes does, I’ll admit, seem loud and boring to me. (It’s a mistake, I think, to rely on synthesizers and electronically-generated drum tracks as an accompaniment to singing, and not just because they put more and more instrumentalists out of work.) But is that because new pop music is by nature boring, or because the types of music such institutions choose to play are carefully calculated to be inoffensive? Did Serra study only the mass-produced, billion-dollar pop industry, or did he also survey small-time garage bands and other independent producers of popular music?

If you asked me to write a list of the greatest composers of the last 50 years (a thing no one ever does ask  me for), I would include John Lennon, Freddie Mercury and Thom Yorke alongside the Gubaidulinas and the Schnittkes. I realize that Yorke is not one of the younger generation of popular composers, but I’m having trouble thinking of a younger songwriter whose work will live on long past his or her lifetime. But then, it takes many years for a composer to reach musical maturity, Mozarts and Schuberts notwithstanding, and the fortysomething Yorke, composer of the startlingly brilliant “Paranoid Android” and many other works of genius, may not even have reached his prime. Mass-market pop songs tend to be the preserve of the early-twenties artists, some of whom won’t still be famous by the time they’re Yorke’s age. The truly talented will, though. Maybe Serra’s conclusion will inspire a new generation to explore bolder melodies, harmonies and textures.

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