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The Morgan PawPrint

The Student News Site of The Morgan School

The Morgan PawPrint

The Student News Site of The Morgan School

The Morgan PawPrint


Current Music and American Culture

How Technology Affects our Storytelling
Created by Noelle Main

Visit my website here for more information. 


“Art is the only thing powerful enough to restart our ability to communicate.”

— Chris Boardman

In the age of social media, the feeling of isolation seems to leave more and more of a void in our lives. Americans seem more divided than ever, with increasing political polarization and general social tension. The stories that manage to capture our attention often spark outbursts of hate, anger, and shock.  

“Every morning brings us the news of the globe, and yet we are poor in noteworthy stories. This is because no event any longer comes to us without already being shot through with explanation.”

— Walter Benjamin

Benjamin may have been writing about the changing culture of the pre World War II era, yet his ideas apply to our world today. With texting and social media apps, the art of face to face conversation is dying, replaced by glowing screens and profile icons. He argues that stories must now appear understandable in themselves, the exact thing that seems to plague musical experiences today. At least, that is what some have started to claim. But does this hold true? Is there really a decline in musical quality? And if so, why does it matter?

Examining music:

“When the whole song is loud, nothing within it stands out as being exclamatory or punchy.”

— Smithsonian Magazine

Music has been a part of the human experience for at least 35,000 years. In that time, it has evolved in numerous ways, from the instruments used to make it, the tools used to record it, and the ways in which it is consumed. But has it evolved for the worse? In 2012 a National Research Council ran 50,000 songs through an AI program to measure three qualities of music. Timbre (which accounts for the sound color, texture, or tone quality); Pitch (which roughly corresponds to the harmonic content of the piece, including its chords, melody, and tonal arrangements); and loudness, the (variation in volume of instruments or sections of the song). 

The study found that timbral variety decreased, as well as the pitch content (the number of chords and melodies played). In other words, songs, especially pop songs, are more homogenous than they were when the genre first emerged in the 1950s. Dynamic range is suffering. 

Music at its core is simply organized sound that listeners attribute value to. Each culture has its own method of A Guide To The Major and Chromatic Scalesorganization. As a “western” country, the most common scales musicians in the U.S. use have seven notes, the eighth being a repeat of the first, altogether completing an octave. But by just adding a few more notes, we get what is called a chromatic scale. This chroma (color) gives music more emotional and technical depth. Its use was popular in the Romantic and Baroque periods, and it is still common in rock, jazz, blues, alternative, and indie music. Its presence in pop music has significantly declined since pre 2000s pop. But the quality of a song is determined by more than just musical information. 

 The means to make and record a song are now more accessible than ever. A person without a musical education can make a song in their bedroom with an app and upload it to about a dozen streaming services within hours. According to data from Spotify in 2018, “Artists upload 24,000 songs every 24 hours. That’s 1 million new songs every 6 weeks.” This new accessibility isn’t the only drastic change. Promoting an artist’s music is significantly easier due to social media and the internet in general. With apps like Tik Tok, often the only part of a song that really matters is the hook, or any 30 second sound bite that can grab attention. Artists can buy fake views and likes on apps as well. They don’t even have to be promoting their music or music production itself to get attention. (Thomas Bodzsar)

“Success does breed imitation in popular music. Musical styles share certain characteristics. Musical familiarity is a predictor of whether or not a listener will like a song. Repetition leads to familiarity, which increases success.”

— David Bruenger writes in his book Create, Produce, Consume : New Models for Understanding Music Business

This low entry barrier undermines the record labels and companies which previously acted as filters for technical quality and talent (supposedly). These entities now have to compete with millions of artists, focusing all their resources on songs that are simple, repetitive, catchy, and easy to digest. A steady income ends up preferred over musical experimentation, contributing to the homogeneity of songs. Radio stations are notorious for overplaying songs that all sound alike. Even the algorithms of streaming services tend to show listeners the same type of music over and over again. Revenue rules over creativity.

There is no doubt that more individualized music production and consumption has its benefits. Individual artists can easily experiment with their sound, connect with other musicians, and produce music that may otherwise be ignored by big record labels. Listeners don’t have to buy whole records to listen to one song, or drive to a store to buy a CD if they don’t want to. Individualization allows the consumer and musician more freedom to explore, which allows the genres that don’t fit with a culture’s “popular music” to thrive. Exposure to music is, after all, essential in developing musical taste.

“Art is a subjective thing, and it should be a subjective thing. And the difficulty of subjectivity is that it becomes hugely problematized when you start applying large sums of money to art objects. That’s where it all starts to get a bit sticky.”

— - Tim Crouch

Producer and songwriter Thomas Bodzsar points out that other factors contribute to the “decline” in music. Not everyone is a musician, or has had musical education, which means the technical quality of songs are not as valid to a broad population. This puts more value on the purpose of a song. People who want to dance most likely aren’t going to listen to a song like Queen’s Bohemian Rhapsody, no matter how technically interesting or lyrically complex it is. For them, a good song has a strong beat and rhythmic tempo. Sometimes emotion or lyrical content is more important for listeners than the musical content of a song. So how does a culture determine what good music is?  

Each of us individually determines what we think good music is based on personal taste, nostalgia, and exposure. So how do we consolidate these indicators into broad cultural rules for what “good” music is? Musician and music educator Jasper Emmitt provides two criteria for what our culture uses to sort “good” music from “bad” music. 1) Emotional connection, the ability of the listener to identify or understand what the artist is trying to express 2) Impact, the achievement of the artist’s goal through the song. Essentially, good music tells a story, one that can be identified and understood, and causes a purposeful reaction in the listener. 



“Music is a key companion to the life experiences of the modern consumer, as the innu-merable ‘Workout’,’ ‘Dinner,’ and even ‘Sleep’ playlists on Spotify demonstrate. No product, show, or even video game has been invited into people’s lives more than music has. People score their lives with soundtracks…”

— Eric Sheinkop

 The ability to listen to music, at least individually, has never been more achievable for a broad population. More accessible production and consumption has also allowed various music subgenres to thrive and grow cultures of their own.

“In the end, there is no final separation between the storyteller and the listener, for the listener is also a potential storyteller who hands down his own version of the story to others. And, through storytelling, the collective experience of a people is passed on from one generation to the next.”

— - Walter Benjamin

As a musician myself, I do not believe that every song has to be a technical masterpiece to be considered good or impactful, much less to be enjoyed. While songs that have a long term cultural impact tend to demonstrate more musical quality, plenty of songs have done the same with half the technical mastery. The same goes for musical experience and storytelling. Not every song has to have a deep, complex meaning to be enjoyed. 

Music and our relationship with it will always change in response to cultural shifts. Popular music quality may be in decline, but as always, there are hundreds of other genres and subgenres that are thriving in the art of storytelling. Music provides comfort in our current and future lives when everything else seems to fall into chaos. Music will continue to share our successes and failures, our worst and brightest moments.


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