The Data Behind Why So Many Pop Songs Sound the Same

August 22, 2018
Updated 3mo ago

By Max Godnick

You're not hearing double ー the summer music season really has become an echo chamber.

"Since the late 90s, the summer songs have sounded the same," New York Times graphics editor Sahil Chinoy said Wednesday in an interview on Cheddar.

"Song of the Summer," the honorific used to describe the track that dominates radio and streaming platforms from Memorial Day through Labor Day, has become one of the industry's most coveted unofficial titles. In 2013, MTV devoted an entire category to the concept for the VMAs and during this week's ceremony gave the award to Cardi B's "I Like It".

Chinoy and collaborator Jessia Ma used data from Spotify to visualize the sonic patterns of the top 10 songs from each summer since 1970, analyzing each on scales of loudness, energy, "danceability", "acousticness", and valence. Chinoy and Ma published their findings in the Times, revealing earlier this month that popular tracks from the early aughts make nearly-uniform musical fingerprints. By contrast, the markings of the 80s and 90s differ more sharply.

Chinoy pinned this phenomenon on a number of factors, including the evolution of Billboard's tracking mechanisms and a shrinking pool of songwriters. In the 90s, Billboard stopped relying on record stores to report sales data, a practice that Chinoy said was "prone to blatant fraud." Instead, Billboard turned to more nuanced data analytics.

The sameness of songwriting talent, Chinoy said, has caused a shortage of diversity for charting hits. Max Martin, the Swedish songwriter behinds songs like "...Baby One More Time" and "Blank Space," is responsible for 22 number-one hit singles alone, and his dominance implies a larger issue in the industry.

But not all hope for diversity is lost.

Recent trends suggest more range at the top of the charts. This year's contenders for "Song of the Summer" include MTV's pick "I Like It," Post Malone's "Psycho," and Drake's "Nice For What." These tunes are emblematic of hip-hop's recent surge in popularity and box out more cookie-cutter tunes on the radio.

"There's a whole mix of genres on the charts today which hasn't really been true since the 70s or 80s," Chinoy said.

"That's a departure from what we heard in 2010."

For full interview click here.