The Frontal Cortex

Music and Words

Hit songs are getting wordier:

Average word count of top-ten songs during the 1960s: 176

Average last year: 436

That’s from the latest Harper’s Index, via Marginal Revolution. I think this trend is pretty clearly a result of hip-hop and rap. Compare some Phil Spector Wall of Sound single – say, “Be My Baby” by The Ronettes – to some recent smash hit, like Umbrella or Lollipop, and it’s easy to hear all those extra words. These new songs are not only faster but much, much wordier. (The slow decay of top 40 radio also means that songs can cross the three minute rubicon. Both Umbrella and Lollipop, for instance, are more than four minutes long.)

Sometimes, when I’m enjoying the shuffle feature on my iPod, I think about all the new musical inputs our auditory cortex has had to learn to deal with over the last hundred years. First, there was the birth of atonality, led by Schoenberg and Stravinsky. Tonic chords stopped resolving themselves; the prettiness of the past gave way to intentional displays of dissonance. Then there was jazz, bebop, and rock and roll. Before long, Dylan was plugging in and the Beatles were playing minor chords on acid. Then Jimi, James Brown and punk rock. Now we’re living in the golden age of hip-hop and indy music, a time when the average listener is expected to appreciate Jeff Buckley and Outkast, Bruce Springsteen and Charlie Parker, Gillian Welch and Kanye West. In other words, we’re requiring our cortex to memorize lots and lots of different musical patterns and that’s not an easy thing to do.

Comments

  1. #1 bwv
    July 15, 2008

    Not to mention there is very little attentive listening to music – it is all background for the most part.

    I think the thought of doing nothing but listening to music attentively for an hour is beyond most people these days. Despite the range of musical styles out there, most individuals listen to an extremely narrow range of music

    Why will people see movies in a range of genres or eat at every available ethnic restaurant but then only listen to a single homogenized genre of music?

  2. #2 djlactin
    July 15, 2008

    No: it’s because songs were like this:

    http://www.mathematik.uni-ulm.de/paul/lyrics/dc5/bitsan~1.html

    songs were just FUN!

  3. #3 Chris
    July 15, 2008

    Something I’ve been pondering a lot lately is the unnerving tendency some people have to remember lyrics to songs. After just a few listens, they’ve memorized the lyrics, as if by osmosis.

    Personally, I have to really focus to pay much attention to the lyrics, though I can recognize songs almost instantly. For me, the music is more important than the lyrics (hence, Radiohead over Bob Dylan, etc).

    Are we just listening to music in different ways, or am I just unable to do both things at the same time?

  4. #4 Ryan Fox
    July 15, 2008

    Do you know of any surveys on education or profession and music genre preferences?

    I, and several of my fellow engineering students, tend to prefer progressive/power/symphonic metal, where there is a lot more emphasis on the music.

  5. #5 Lefty
    July 19, 2008

    Chris: I’m much like you. I can very easily fail to hear any word in a song as more than an unrecognizable note from the human instrument. This is true especially if it is a genre of music which I’m not particularly interested (like the stuff my wife likes).

    Further, when I do get the words, often I get the wrong ones. And when I understand the words as the wrong words, I will hear them as the wrong words generally until I’ve done something like read a lyrics sheet (or less often have someone correct me). Usually I will be able to hear the correct words after that, however sometimes even if I know the lyrics have been corrected but I have forgotten what the correction is my mind will revert to hearing the old (incorrect) version.

The site is currently under maintenance and will be back shortly. New comments have been disabled during this time, please check back soon.