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‘80s Music is Boring, According to Science

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Most debates about pop music may be entirely subjective, but Matthias Mauch, an engineer at Queen Mary University of London, decided to take a more scientific approach to the subject. He and a team of colleagues put 17,000 songs spanning 50 years of the Billboard 100 list through data-mining software to generate a quantitative data set about the evolution of what’s topping the charts.

The computer took songs (the label of “pop” is more about popularity than genre) from 1960 to 2010 and measured things like harmony and timbre. The results, published in the Royal Society Open Science journal, prove that it simply isn’t true that all mass music sounds the same.

One major finding: Music in the ‘80s was a snooze! That decade was the least diverse of any time period in the last half-century.

After Mauch and his team measured harmony, timbre, and chord changes, the researchers built a “fossil record” that tracked when particular stylings were more or less prominent. With that data, the team was able to see the decline of the dominant 7th chords as jazz and blues faded from the mainstream. In turn, the minor seventh chords found a place with the dawn of the disco era.

The team was also able to spot three musical revolutions in 1964, 1983, and 1991. These years marked large shifts in the pop music world where styles changed quickly. It’s pretty remarkable that a set of data would reflect the changes of what was in vogue from decade to decade, but the revolutions in the data make total sense. The British Invasion stormed pop music in 1964, while 1983 ushered in the era of new technology and synthesizers, and in 1991, rap and hip-hop started to take over. The last shift was the largest, according to Mauch, in part because rap and hip-hop are genres with very few harmonies.

There’s also some great news for those who are tired of hearing people say that all modern pop music sounds the same: Science disagrees. According to the data, today’s pop is just as diverse as ever. So if you must hate on something, you can hate the ‘80s, though my New Order t-shirt and I will just keep dancing over here.

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Big Questions
What's the Difference Between an Opera and a Musical?
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They both have narrative arcs set to song, so how are musicals different from operas?

For non-theater types, the word “musical” conjures up images of stylized Broadway performances—replete with high-kicks and punchy songs interspersed with dialogue—while operas are viewed as a musical's more melodramatic, highbrow cousin. That said, The New York Times chief classical music critic Anthony Tommasini argues that these loose categorizations don't get to the heart of the matter. For example, for every Kinky Boots, there’s a work like Les Misérables—a somber, sung-through show that elicits more audience tears than laughs. Meanwhile, operas can contain dancing and/or conversation, too, and they range in quality from lowbrow to highbrow to straight-up middlebrow.

According to Tommasini, the real distinguishing detail between a musical and an opera is that “in opera, music is the driving force; in musical theater, words come first.” While listening to an opera, it typically doesn’t matter what language it’s sung in, so long as you know the basic plot—but in musical theater, the nuance comes from the lyrics.

When it comes down to it, Tommasini’s explanation clarifies why opera stars often sing in a different style than Broadway performers do, why operas and musicals tend to have their trademark subject matters, and why musical composition and orchestration differ between the two disciplines.

That said, we live in a hybrid-crazy world in which we can order Chinese-Indian food, purchase combination jeans/leggings, and, yes, watch a Broadway musical—like 2010's Spider-Man: Turn Off the Dark—that’s billed as “rock opera.” At the end of the day, the lack of hard, fast lines between opera and musical theater can lead composers from both camps to borrow from the other, thus blurring the line even further.

Have you got a Big Question you'd like us to answer? If so, let us know by emailing us at bigquestions@mentalfloss.com.

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History
Lost Gustav Holst Music Found in a New Zealand Symphony Archive
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English composer Gustav Holst became famous for his epic seven-piece suite "The Planets," but not all of his works were larger-than-life. Take "Folk Songs from Somerset," a collection of folk tunes composed by Holst in 1906 and largely forgotten in the decades since. Now, more than a century later, the music is finally attracting attention. As Atlas Obscura reports, manuscripts of the songs were rediscovered among a lost collection of sheet music handwritten by the musician.

The Holst originals were uncovered from the archives of a New Zealand symphony during a routine cleaning a few years ago. While throwing away old photocopies and other junk, the music director and the librarian of the Bay of Plenty (BOP) Symphonia came across two pieces of music by Holst. The scores were penned in the composer’s handwriting and labeled with his former address. Realizing the potential importance of their discovery, they stored the documents in a safe place, but it wasn't until recently that they were able to verify that the manuscripts were authentic.

For more than a century, the Holst works were thought to be lost for good. "These manuscripts are a remarkable find, particularly the ‘Folk Songs from Somerset’ which don’t exist elsewhere in this form," Colin Matthews of London's Holst Foundation said in a statement from the symphony.

How, exactly, the documents ended up in New Zealand remains a mystery. The BOP Symphonia suspects that the sheets were brought there by Stanley Farnsworth, a flutist who performed with an early version of the symphony in the 1960s. “We have clues that suggest the scores were used by Farnsworth,” orchestra member Bronya Dean said, “but we have no idea how Farnsworth came to have them, or what his connection was with Holst.”

The symphony plans to mark the discovery with a live show, including what will likely be the first performance of "Folk Songs from Somerset" in 100 years. Beyond that, BOP is considering finding a place for the artifacts in Holst’s home in England.

[h/t Atlas Obscura]

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