Let the musical (r)evolution begin

The noise was fit enough to reproduce, so its genes were passed on to its daughters.

Can we use the scientific method to understand how music evolves?  Evolution, with all the trappings of tenth grade biology: heritable traits, genetic recombination and mutation, and survival of the fittest?  To find out, scientists in London and Japan wrote DarwinTunes, a computer program that applied the tenets of evolution to 8-second loops of computer-generated noise.  Then they watched as popular choice turned noise into music.

The noises were assigned a “genetic code” that could be shuffled around and mutated, much like our DNA.  Thousands of people voted on how much they liked (or hated) the noises.  The best loops were allowed to “reproduce,” or pass on their traits to the next generation.  Then people voted again.  This cycle went on for more than 2500 generations.  Through this process of (quasi-)natural selection, the researchers found that music quickly came from noise, complete with western rhythm and chordality.   You can listen to the evolution for yourself, here.

But then it stopped evolving.

Computer simulations aren’t the only place that musical change has plateaued.  It’s happening in real life, too. Scientists in Spain analyzed almost half a million popular songs recorded from 1955-2010, looking for changes in pitch (harmony, chords, melody), timbre (instruments used), and loudness (not how loud you blast it in your headphones, rather intrinsic loudness).  They analyzed these three traits within songs and across time.

The results are in.  If you grumble every time you turn on the radio, prepare your soapbox.  Newer songs basically sound the same, with simpler chord progressions and less instrumental variety.  Not only is this uninspiring to listeners, it could prove problematic for song recognition programs.  As for what has changed:  everything keeps getting louder.

Maybe social media will save us.  Yes, popular songs have the same ring.  But we have an Internet full of digital music.  As people explore and share songs that fall outside of this homogenous norm, we will probably see musical evolution pick up again.  Which gets back to the role of the audience in shaping new music.  As the creators of DarwinTunes point out, the line between audience and artist is easily blurred in our digital day and age.  Digital music allows people to tweak and re-share the original piece.  Audience-induced mutations could introduce a selective advantage that evolution just might favor.  Or, put more simply, seek out music that’s different, and mix up the stuff that’s not.

________________________________

Photo credit:  Mark Runyon/ConcertTour.org

Original Papers:

Evolution of Music by Public Choice.  MacCallum et al.  PNAS July 24, 2012 vol. 109 no. 30 12081-12086

Measuring the Evolution of Contemporary Popular Western Music.  Serra et al.  Scientific Reports 2, Article #521.  July 26, 2012.  DOI:10.1038/srep00521

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