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Ohio State researcher discovers technology advancements shorten pop music

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Ohio State researcher Hubert Léveillé Gauvin found that over the years songs with shorter titles and faster tempos have become more popular, using Pharrell’s hit “Happy” as an example. Credit: Screenshot by Alexa Mavrogianis

From vinyl records to Spotify, the way people access music has changed, but so has the production of music itself.

A recent study done by an Ohio State doctoral student finds that modern pop songs have shorter instrumental intros, shorter titles and quicker tempos, compared with pop songs from 30 years ago. The study found that these changes are prompted by a listener’s limited attention span as well as technological advancements.

“It’s exactly like an evolution, it’s survival of the fittest,” said Hubert Léveillé Gauvin, the doctoral student in music theory who conducted this research. “As your environment changes, you need to adapt yourself … if your environment is more competitive, you need to make something to grab people’s attention if you want to make it.”

Léveillé Gauvin listened to the top 10 singles from 1986 to 2015. He observed shorter titles, faster tempo and a shorter timespan before the voice and hook comes in were also shorter.

One example is Whitney Houston’s 1986 song “How Will I Know.” It has a four word title, the tempo is 120 beats per minute and it takes about 40 seconds before the voice comes in. Léveillé Gauvin compared that to Pharrell William’s 2014 hit song, “Happy.”

“One word in the title, very easy to remember, the tempo is much faster, something like 160 BPMs, it takes two seconds before the voice comes in. The voice comes in right away,” he said. “So that’s a huge difference and those songs are prototypical of the broader things we’ve seen in music.”

Léveillé Gauvin found the differences in instrumental introductions to be the most dramatic. The average intro in the mid 1980s was approximately 22 seconds. By 2015, it was 5 seconds.

“Those basically disappeared over the 30 years that we looked at music,” Léveillé Gauvin said.

Léveillé Gauvin credits these changes in part to “attention economy,” in which attention is a resource.

“You can think of attention as the currency of the information age,” Léveillé Gauvin said. “Because attention is both scarce and valuable, it can be thought of as a currency,  like the U.S. dollar.”

Spotify hosts the largest collection of songs to stream, which increases the number of things vying for a listener’s attention, thus increasing its value.

“It’s a bit of a vicious cycle, because as my attention becomes more valuable, the more things are trying to grab my attention,” Léveillé Gauvin said.

He added that the past decade has made it easy to jump from album to album between artists and genres, making attention more scarce.

“Before Pandora, there were very few streaming platforms that would allow this type of quick move between different pieces of music,” said Lindsay Warrenburg, a doctoral student in music theory. “Even though these factors might not be used intentionally by producers and musicians and artists themselves, it could represent a shifting dynamic in human preferences in general, beyond just music.”

Léveillé Gauvin said the iPod was the “big gamechanger.”

“With the iPod, the huge difference was that you get all those songs from different artists. You place all those people, and now they start to fight for attention within your device,” Léveillé Gauvin said. “The big difference with Spotify is that instead of having 500 songs, I have 300 million.”

Modern pop songs are not just an artist’s product, but an artist’s advertisement, Léveillé Gauvin said. A song is a way to promote a singer’s brand. From that perspective, he said that though Spotify doesn’t pay artists, it is an effective way to achieve exposure.

If songs are advertisements, it then makes sense to have short titles and increased tempo, so the consumer remembers the name of the product and increases arousal to encode things in memory,” Léveillé Gauvin said.

Although many view the evolution of music from a political or social view, they miss the way technology changes the way people create music, Léveillé Gauvin said.

“The music industry is one of the most important next to Hollywood, in terms of the revenue it creates from year to year, so by studying music, you can understand the way that people’s values and preferences across the board are created,” Warrenburg said. “I think (this study) speaks to a changing world of where human attention is going in the future.”

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