Phonology and Music

For years, linguists have been compiling corpora of different languages and their various subcomponents in order to learn more about the nature of human communication. Analyzing these large datasets of text or spoken language, researchers have been able to draw fascinating conclusions about the underlying grammars of languages, the ways languages have changed over time, and much more. Naturally, as a guitarist, I got to wondering whether or not phonological analysis techniques could be used in an analysis of music, and thankfully, fellow guitarist and Professor of Linguistics at the University of Massachusetts Amherst, Joe Pater, had already answered my question.

Working with Professors Christopher White and Mara Breen, Pater conducted a study comparing and contrasting two major corpora of songs from before and after the turn of the century. The team aimed to categorize the ways in which popular music had evolved over the past few decades, gathering their data through a careful analysis of tempo, melodic-metric profiles (where in a measure most hits occur), entropy, repetition, and genre. I found their findings to be extremely interesting.

First and foremost, modern music tends to be faster than its premillennial counterpart, perhaps due to the growing influence and acceptance of rap and hip-hop songs in the music scene. These two genres, categorized by quick tempos, have become significantly more popular since the year 2000, and the growth of new styles such as alternative rock highlights their influence in the modern scene.

Second, it seems that modern musicians tend to hit their onsets at a faster pace and disperse their hits more evenly throughout measures, interestingly staying away from onsets on the downbeat more so than before. Additionally, patterns found within measures are generally repeated more frequently throughout songs, creating a very consistent meter in most popular songs. Turn on the radio and more likely than not you’re going to hear the same repeated chord progression and strumming pattern sent back at you.

Interestingly, the researchers found that differences between music from the two centuries were not consistent among genres, with pop remaining far more consistent than other styles. Trends in tempo and melodic-metric profiles seemed to be indicative of genre, which makes sense: it is in part these differences that distinguish songs enough so that we classify them as belonging to entirely different styles of music.

The next time you pull up your favorite playlist on Spotify, Amazon Music, or whatever platform you prefer, try to keep these findings in mind and see what you notice. Perhaps you’ll find extreme repetition or maybe extra improvisation, but either way, think about what you might want to try next and enjoy some good music!

White, C. W., Pater, J., & Breen, M. (2022). A comparative analysis of melodic rhythm in two corpora of American popular music. Journal of Mathematics and Music, 16(2), 160-182.

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