Gina Mei
May 12, 2015 7:25 am

Thanks to a recent study from the University of London, Imperial College London, and online music discovery site, we officially have quantifiable research telling us what music has been most influential over the last 50 years — and the results might not be what you’d expect.

The study, published last week in the Royal Society Open Science Journal, investigated over 17,000 songs that appeared on the U.S. Billboard Hot 100 chart between 1960 and 2010. Analyzing harmonic and timbral properties with “information retrieval and text-mining tools,” researchers were able to track the evolution of music over the last half-century based on trends in audio and genre. While popular music progressed at a relatively steady pace, they found that there were three periods of rapid growth. These “stylistic revolutions” occurred in 1964, 1983, and 1991: the first coincided with the British Invasion of the ’60s; the second with the popularity of dance, disco, and new wave; and the third — and largest — with the rise of hip-hop. Of all the musical revolutions, the first was the most complex, and involved the expansion of the most styles of music; but the revolution of 1991 was by far the most significant and the most influential.

“The rise of rap and related genres appears, then, to be the single most important event that has shaped the musical structure of the American charts in the period that we studied,” the report concludes. As Kanye might say, “I’mma let you finish,” but hip-hop is one of the most influential genres of all time — of all time! (But actually.)

The report is quick to clarify that their analysis doesn’t show the origins of musical styles, but instead shows how changes in genre frequency affect the musical structure of what’s popular. Nowhere was this “boom” as apparent as with rap — which, while basically non-existent on the charts before the mid-’80s, became “the single largest style for the next 30 years.”

“For the first time we can measure musical properties in recordings on a large scale,” Matthias Mauch, the lead author of the study, told Billboard. “We can actually go beyond what music experts tell us, or what we know ourselves about them, by looking directly into the songs, measuring their make-up, and understanding how they have changed.”

Of course, some might be quick to claim that the Beatles (and rock music) must have been far more influential given their legendary status, but perhaps one of the most surprising things that the study reveals is in regards to British influence on popular American music. In particular, they claim that the Beatles and the Rolling Stones were not wholly responsible for the American music revolution of 1964: both groups were merely “on-trend” at the time, and not nearly as revolutionary as previously assumed.

“The music historians all talk about how the Beatles came to America and changed everything but it’s entirely coincidental,” Professor Armand, senior author on the paper, told the Telegraph. “They didn’t make a revolution or spark a revolution, they joined one. The trend is already emerging and they rode that wave, which accounts for their incredible success.”

The study concedes that “even if the British did not initiate the American revolution of 1964, they did exploit it and, to the degree that they were imitated by other artists, fanned its flames.” (It should also be noted that even if these groups weren’t necessarily as influential on the overall direction of popular music in America, that doesn’t make them any less incredible or important.)

The researchers also found that contrary to popular belief, music diversity hasn’t really declined all that much over the past half-century. We know this might be hard to believe (because sometimes it truly feels like all catchy songs sound the same), but according to the study, there is no proof that popular music has gone through “progressive homogenization” over the past 50 years. Rather, music diversity is controlled by the “rise and fall of particular ways of making music.” If music feels less diverse, it’s due to the fact that particular genres tend to reign supreme over various periods of time.

Overall, the study is well worth a read and provides some awesome insight into what makes music so darn good. Hopefully, it also gives hip-hop and rap some well-deserved credit, as well: as Mic points out, while the Beatles have gotten tons of credit over the years, rap and hip-hop have not. Rap has changed the scope of music in the U.S. more than any other genre in recent history, and it deserves its due.

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