The real reason why new pop music is so incredibly bad

You have probably heard that Pink Floyd recently published their new album Endless River. Will this bring back the wonderful world of good music after the endless awfulness of the popular music scene in the last 20 years or so? Is good music, as we know it from the 60s and 70s, back for good? The reasons behind the alleged endless awfulness of pop music these days suggest otherwise. We shouldn’t be throwing stones at new music but instead at our inability to like it.

Pink Floyd 1973

When we were young we learned to appreciate Pink Floyd.

Daniel Levitin was asked at a recent music psychology conference in Toronto why old music is amazing and new music is awful. He believed that modern record companies are there to make money. In the olden days, on the other hand, they were there to make music and ready to hold on to musicians which needed time to become successful. More interestingly, he reminded the public that many modern kidz would totally disagree with the implication that modern music is awful. How can it be that new music is liked by young people if so much of it is often regarded as quite bad?

Everything changes for the better after a few repetitions

The answer to the mystery has nothing to do with flaws in modern music but instead with our brain. When adults hear new music they often hate it at first. After repeated listening they tend to find it more and more beautiful. For example, Marcia Johnson and colleagues (1985) played Korean melodies to American participants and found that hearing a new melody led to low liking ratings, a melody heard once before to higher ratings and even more exposure to higher than higher ratings. Even Korsakoff patients – who could hardly remember having heard individual melodies before – showed this effect, i.e. without them realising it they probably never forget melodies.

This so-called mere exposure effect is all that matters to me: a robust, medium-strong, generally applicable, evolutionarily plausible effect (Bornstein, 1989). You can do what you like, it applies to all sorts of stimuli. However, there is one interesting exception here. Young people do not show the mere exposure effect, no relationship between ‘repeat the stimulus’ and ‘give good feeling’ (Bornstein, 1989). As a result, adults need a lot more patience before they like a new song as much as young people do. No wonder adults are only satisfied with the songs they already know from their youth in the 60s and 70s. Probably, when looking at the music scene in 2050 the current generation will equally hate it and wish the Spice Girls back (notice the gradual rise of 90’s parties already).

I listened to it –> I like it

So, when it comes to an allegedly awful present and great past, ask yourself: how deep is your love for the old music itself rather than its repeated listening? Listen repeatedly to any of a million love songs and you will end up appreciating it. Personally, I give new music a chance and sometimes it manages to relight my fire. Concerning Endless River, if it’s not love at first sight, do not worry. The new Pink Floyd album sure is good (depending on how many times you listen to it).

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Bornstein, R. (1989). Exposure and affect: Overview and meta-analysis of research, 1968-1987. Psychological Bulletin, 106 (2), 265-289 DOI: 10.1037/0033-2909.106.2.265

Johnson MK, Kim JK, & Risse G (1985). Do alcoholic Korsakoff’s syndrome patients acquire affective reactions? Journal of experimental psychology. Learning, memory, and cognition, 11 (1), 22-36 PMID: 3156951
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Figure: By PinkFloyd1973.jpg: TimDuncan derivative work: Mr. Frank (PinkFloyd1973.jpg) [CC-BY-3.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/3.0)%5D, via Wikimedia Commons

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PS: Yes, I did hide 29 Take That song titles in this blog post. Be careful, you might like 90’s pop music a little bit more due to this exposure.

 

 

 

 

 

23 comments

  1. Do you think for old time’s sake maybe they stuck a “subliminal message” in there? Haha, no, but really. I wonder if it could just be the frequencies and whatnot of more classic rock bands that make them more enjoyable for adults. As in, did different decades of music use different melodies, frequencies, and pitches; and when a new style of music came along was it more desirable to a younger group because the ear had become conditioned to the old style? Whether this is something that changes from generation to generation would be a neat thing to do a study on.

  2. Really interesting article but I think it doesn’t begin to do justice to the real situation with current music. The low sales figures speak for themselves. The quality just is not there, even compared to a decade or so ago. I am speaking of Western music of course.

    I have thought about this quite a lot. I have ben an avid music fan most of my life, from classical to blues to rock to punk to New wave to post punk to industrial and even goth. I like classical Japanese music and all kids of world music. I have never stopped listening to new rock music in 40 years, some of which is now still quite good.

    I am often the oldest person at a concert by 20 years or more, and they still can kick my ass. I never cared what people thought about what I liked when I was 20, and don’t care now in my fifties. Any odd looks I get are filed under Talk to someone who gives a ****.I find plenty of nice people to talk to at the shows and they get a kick out of my stories of bands that are legends to them.

    But I have to be honest, while there are niches of music of great accomplishment and refinement, the epic greatness of the music is not there anymore. The great melodies, charisma, scope, and freedom in it is long gone. It is the baroque compared to the Renaissance. And it just gets worse and worse and worse.

    The idea that the old music is liked simply because it was what we heard before and that the quality is the same today, is simply bogus. I came of age in the 70s and loved old blues and rock from the 1950s and 1960s even though it was Old by then. Indeed, much of the punk and new wave revival was a return to that immediacy and pop grip of that early period. So that supposition of familiarity with a genre or tune simply falls apart.

    Indeed we don’t just like what we are familiar with, heck, lots of old music is terrible. TERRIBLE. We recall only the good stuff, not just familiar stuff. So we need to compare the good stuff from the old days to the good stuff now. And that is where today falls apart. The good stuff of today is way below the good stuff of the past.

    And kids can and do recognize quality in older music. I’ve run into kids who marvel at Led Zeppelin and the Velvet Underground and wonder where that level of artist is today. It ain’t Eminem and Dr. Dre or the Parquet Courts or even Arcade Fire. Heck they have to rip off Marvin Gaye these days to have a hit.

    In the 70s and 80s, the good stuff compared favorably to the great music of the 50s and 60s. It was that accomplished. Melodies and tunes that are indelible and fresh even now. From pop music to post-punk like Joy Division to Mazzy Star.

    Taylor Swift? Blurred Lines? Parquet Courts? Lady Gaga? Interpol? The Shins? Eric What hsi name? As good as the older stuff?

    I have to quote Noel Gallagher on that: “Who says that, their parents? Stop lying.”

    I have asked myself why the strong melodies, structures, charisma and daring seems to have gone. I have a few culprits to blame: Punk, my old fave and indie rock which prized drones and mediocre playing, rap music, which is just not up to snuff with a few exceptions. Young ears hear that and are not able to create.

    Our ears heard so much more and so much better music, on TV, in the subway, on the elevator. It is what you heard growing up that makes great musicians. And kids don’t hear the range of stuff that makes for great musical minds. I think they will more likely come out of places like Africa or the Middle East if Raps leaden musical dullness, and indie rocks two chord droning does not efface them. And it is not just music, movies are bad as well. (TV is the exception. Some of it, like the Sopranos, is some of the best stuff ever done.)

    You need to ask much deeper questions and much more serious investigations have to be made to find out why music has simply lost its quality and force today. It is NOT about what you’ve heard over and over. I heard Madonna over and over and hated her then, and hated her now, because she stunk.

    And I am no aging Fleetwood Mac/Eagles fan. I like Hocico and Psyclon Nine, the best bands of the last ten years. Youtube them and tell me I am a fossil. I like what is good. Period.

  3. I agree with Kazimir. But I feel that music is bad today for different reasons. I actually think the reason why music is generally worse today than it was back in the day is actually kind of obvious when you think about it.

    The easiest way to prove that music is not as good as it was is NOT by comparing hits, or how many people like the song. Simply compare how intricate and complex the songs are. Are they well thought out? Does the song move you in different ways? Do the lyrics have a deep meaning? How creative are musicians with their instrumental parts?

    Obviously, when applying these questions to music of today, and then music back then. The farther and farther we go back, all the way to Mozart, the more and more old music shines through.

    The reason is because people in America generally lack music knowledge. If you go up to someone, and ask them “what’s the musical alphabet?” I bet you, chances are, they won’t know. That’s the most BASIC knowledge of music there is. And most people don’t even know the answer to that very basic, elementary school music theory question. This in turn, has caused us to be subconsciously intimidated by more complex and complicated songs. Since we generally don’t understand music, the majority of people prefer simpler music, because it’s easier for their brain to process the information that their ear is receiving.

    Back in Mozart’s time, almost everyone had at least a basic understanding of music theory, and playing a musical instrument was a very common interest among the majority. Why else do you think that classical music is the most complex music we have? Because the majority of people understood music theory, so great music flourished as a result. Music has only gone downhill since Mozart’s and Beethoven’s time. Since the 2000’s, it’s been pure shit.

    We need to start funding our music programs in school more. Until then, the majority of the population will prefer simpler music, because they lack the understanding of how music works.

  4. I have been a session musician for nearly 4 decades…..typically music used to be played by we humans……less and less so now…..huge factor to the negative….also truly …it is the writing that makes a song meaningful or not …..war, famine, ecological disaster all marginalised and largely ignored…not in the 60’s dude. Music today is largely shit because it serves a shallow, narssictic society…actually reflects it albiet unconsciously, and most worringly without artistry or any sense of irony

    1. This. Less variation, less melody, more ear worm brain trash, louder, 6db of dynamic range, quantising, democratisation of the means to make music. You don’t have to know what a scale is any more. Computer fixes all. Samples replace craftsmanship. But there is very good stuff out there. Just dig deeper.

  5. Pink..or whatever IS STILL COMMERCIAL CRAP, consumerist propaganda music to entertain the masses (and make them think “oh yeah this is real music”) just a little bit disguised as “sofisticated”, NOT MUCH DIFFERENT FROM A CAREFULLY DESIGNED CARTOON BOX OF PIZZA DOWN THE SUPERMARKET.

  6. Totally misguided premise — the idea that are brains are simply slow to new sounds. It may be true in a general sense, but there are deeper reasons for my generation’s antipathy to pop. Studies of the Million Song Dataset have shown in scientific terms that contemporary pop music has become louder with less dynamic range, more homogenous, and less daring in its melodies, harmonies, and chord progressions. In other words, it’s mostly crap.

    I for one have diverse tastes ranging from classical to ethnic, bluegrass, blues, rock, jazz, gospel, and more. I love truly original sounds and believe there’s great music in nearly every genre. But I absolutely HATE contemporary pop, which is a mindless wasteland where a pretty face counts far more than musical talent or an original thought.

  7. Contemporary music is awful because the overall cultural level has declined. It seems that pop music appeals to a younger and younger audience … preteens mostly, but that’s only part of the problem. I grew up with Rock and Roll, and there’s a lot of that I can’t listen to today. A lot of what some call “classic rock” is crap. There are exceptions, of course. If Lady Gaga would only blossom as the talented jazz singer she could be. Wishful thinking, perhaps, in this era of “lowest common denominator” garbage. The talent is there is some cases, but it is not enough simply to have a voice. You have to know how to sing. The great adult pop and jazz singers of 50 and 60 years ago knew that; Ella Fitzgerald, Sinatra, Mel Torme’, Billie Holiday and a host of others. People need to demand better.

    1. Methinks you overestimate Lady Gaga’s talent. I think she’d fail miserably in a more demanding music genre like jazz. Her training is more in the performing arts than in music. That should tell you something. Without the outrageous outfits, weird stunts, and public nudity, nobody would give Gaga a second thought. Her act is so shallow she has to hide behind a phony name.

  8. I agree that having a song pounced into your head by pop stations gets the song stuck in your head. Then no matter how terrible the song you begin to sing it then you in turn start to like it. This is the case for most people especially younger more easily influenced people. Case in point, my daughter, 14, hated a modern pop song, of which I cannot recall the name. A couple weeks on the school bus listening to the pop station she started singing it. I inquired as to why she was singing a song she professed to hating a mere fortnight prior. She couldn’t explain but it was stuck in her head, yet she still insisted she disliked the tune. Another fortnight passed and all of the sudden I notice it was now in her rotation on her phone. Proving that those who are younger and easily influenced for lack of an identity, are susceptible to the hourly rotation of songs creating popularity. I’m sure it happened with myself at a younger age.

    While I agree to the repetition theory, i disagree with the notion that that older people, such as myself, dislike unfamiliar songs. For me, I’m a musician so It may be different, If the voice is quality and the music is made with an instrument,I give it a shot. However 99% of modern “pop” music is complete and utter garbage and is considered so simply because it is. Kids dig it because their friends do, and because it’s shoved down their throats. I proved this myself by exposing my daughter to bands like Rush, Pink Floyd, Led Zep, Breaking Benjamin, 10 Years, Sick Puppies, Fun, and other quality musical groups/musicians. Those bands have now earned a spot in her rotation.

    Pop songs today and for much of the last 20 years are bubblegum pop from flash j the pan artists with little if any real talent. The only real talent is the ability to market and promote themselves. Everything today is repeating the same line 20 times per song to embed that in the minds of the in those who hear it. It’s like a brain parasite. It’s become a business of science of sound and psychology. Before it was write songs that convey a serious emotion and let the singer project that. Now it’s just a matter of a catchy beat and a repititous lyric. Most songs today have on average a 3rd grade reading level of writing. That is incredibly sad. We are dumbing down our children.

    It’s a sad day when our idea of music is the minutia that comes flying out of the pop radio station.

    1. That proves it, this new music really is brainwashing kids. Seems to not work on people who have listened to good music though. I have heard this new music when I go to work because they play off the generic top hits network on repeat for 9 hours straight everyday. I have to listen to some teckno music during break just to clean out the earworms.

  9. I disagree, im young and i can safely say new pop music is terrible. Not all music is however you have good bands and probably more quality music being made than ever! But the pop music is absolutely terrible and I dont understand it! Bands like Tame Impala and arctic monkeys are great and they are pop but wtf is stuff like Linkin Park, its sooooo bad they just whine with the same type of melody with slightly different chords about their “suffering” while putting on ridiculous overly dramatic faces.

  10. I have desperately tried to like today’s pop music and ended up wanting to take a gun and shoot it out of my head because it’s so bland and repetitious. Classic pop/rock could also be repetitious, but not to the degree it is today. Today, they’re far more concerned about beat. Melody is still there, but it’s not as important as the beat. Today, when kids hear 60s and 70s pop/rock classics, many comment that it’s “cheesy;” which is amazing considering the depth of cheese today’s music stoops to. I think they have a hard time with yesterday’s sweeter melodies because it’s like sugar: they’re not used to hearing sweetness. They focus more on rhythm. The concern is whether you can dance, do drugs or have sex to it. I defend the style of old music, but I want new music. I would like to see the next generation break out of the 25-30 year lock hip-hop has had on music and try something new. If I hate it, fine. I certainly hope it will be more melody, but either way, at least it won’t be the same old thing.

  11. I hate popular music because I get a sense that it is only being made for the commercial world and nothing else. It is all about the spectacle and nothing about the music. There are barriers being broken or artistic growth. Whatever you can say about the artists of the 60’s there were to attempts by many artists to do just that, even when they failed. The other problem is that you hear a lot of bad music whether you like it or not because it is literally everywhere. If you dare to criticize the music, you are considered a rockist or an old guy(which I guess I am relative to music audience these days), or an elitist. I just don’t get it, and if others find it offensive, well too bad.

  12. There’s a huge difference between the best popular music of the 60s and 70s and the garbage being cranked out today. In earlier days of rock and roll, many of the best musicians cut their chops by imitating great blues artists. They learned from each other and shared ideas. Most of them had some formal training in music. There was a naive belief that music could change the world, a passion that can’t be forced. Bob Dylan just won a Nobel Prize for literature, for crying out loud.

    Today’s musical hacks have very little sense of music history, and very little talent, real training, or skill. They also have very little to say.

    The acid test is this — how many years pass by before the song sounds boring or dated? In the case of today’s “musicians,” very few. In the case of LED Zeppelin, The Beatles, or The Who, most of the music still sounds fresh. In the case of Beethoven or Bach, their brilliance still astonishes two centuries or more later.

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