Song melodies have become simpler since 1950s – study

Melodies of popular songs have become simpler since the 1950s, according to scientists.

An analysis of hundreds of chart hits from the past 70 years has shown “a significant decline” in the complexity of rhythm and pitch in song melodies, UK researchers said.

They said the biggest transitions – or “bursts of change” – occurred in the years 1975 and 2000 – when music genres such as new wave, disco and stadium rock started gaining popularity in the mid-1970s, and hip-hop became more prominent in the early Noughties.

The team also found “moderate evidence” of a “melodic revolution” in the year 1996, around a time when major music studios began to adopt new technologies such as software applications to record, edit and produce music.

The researchers said the findings, published in the journal Scientific Reports, suggest complexity and creative expression in popular music is shifting away from melody and towards other elements such as quality of the sound.

Madeline Hamilton, a PhD student in computer science at Queen Mary University of London (QMUL), said: “The complexity of melodies in the most popular songs has shown a significant decline since 1950.

“This implies that what people enjoy about music is shifting.

“When it comes to extremely popular music, we no longer listen for complex vocal melodies, but perhaps for something else – maybe interesting chord progressions, lyrics, or sound textures.”

She said the vocal melody of Walking Behind You by Eddie Fisher – the fourth most popular song in 1953 – uses lots of notes which are not part of the key the song is in, making it more complex.

Singer Eddie Fisher with actress Elizabeth Taylor at London Airport
Singer Eddie Fisher with actress Elizabeth Taylor at London Airport in 1959 (PA Archive)

In contrast, the verse of Poker Face by Lady Gaga – the second most popular song in 2009 – is “much, much simpler” where “most of the melody is a single pitch (B natural) repeated many times”, she added.

Ms Hamilton, along with Dr Marcus Pearce, a senior lecturer at QMUL’s School of Electronic Engineering and Computer Science, analysed 1,131 melodies from 360 year-end singles that reached the top five in the US Billboard charts each year between 1950 and 2022.

They found that while the complexity of song rhythms and pitch arrangements declined over seven decades, the average number of notes played per second increased.

The researchers believe this shift in complexity from melody to other elements stops the music from sounding overwhelming to listeners.

The team wrote: “In the 50s, the range of possible timbres (the quality of sound) for music production was limited to whatever sounds one could make with the physical instruments and accessories available at the time.

“Today, with the accessibility of digital music production software and libraries of millions of samples and loops, anyone with a laptop and an internet connection can create any sound they can imagine.”