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Music is Just Not the Same Anymore. And Physics Proves it!

I'm not one to argue in any seriousness that music-was-better-in-my-day, but as I listen to the recent pop/rap music my kids play, I do occasionally find myself thinking its-all-the-same. Just as my parents thought back in the eighties.

But its always nice to have your prejudice's confirmed, and I was delighted - and intrigued - to come across this article in the New York Times which goes a long to explaining why we might think that today (whatever about the past): because apparently, it's true. And Physics proves it.

Not the same in terms of melody and rhythm, but in terms of loudness.

The graphic below take a typical track from the 70s and compares it to a typical track from 2018. To produce it, recordings were broken up into half-second blocks, and for each block the pink dot represents the loudest sound - usually the singer - and the green curve represents the average loudness of the background musical accompaniment.

Two things become obvious very quickly looking at the graphs, and the NYT has many more to bolster their arguments. One is that in most recent recordings, the lead vocal plays out with very little variation in loudness compared to the past, and the second thing is that the gap in loudness between the lead and background has become much, much narrower over the years.

Apparently this is what the industry refers to as compression. Old record players used to be designed to 'compress' the recording: increase the loudness of the quietest sounds while quietening down the loudest. This is why the 'hiss' between tracks was always so loud. Sound engineers were always inclined to compress their recordings, and arguably did so to improve the overall sound. But the extent to which it's done now is far greater than it ever was. And to those of us with aged ears, that can lead us to feel that its-all-the-same.

So we're right when we say its-all-the-same. But our parents were wrong when they said it! How satisfying.

You should check out the article. And special kudos must go to the graphics designed by Sahil Chinoy: a lesson in how artistry, music and physics can all be brought together.

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