Scientists Discover Music Evolves Like A Living Species

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Caroline Reid

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80 Scientists Discover Music Evolves Like A Living Species
YEKATERINBURG, RUSSIA - JULY 22: Monument to the Beatles installed on May 23, 2009 / Mikhail Markovskiy via Shutterstock

Cello there! My music puns might be bad, but stave off your criticism until you've heard this: A new study has popped up suggesting that music behaves like a living ecosystem.

This intriguing conclusion is the result of new research headed by Matthias Mauch, an engineer at Queen Mary University of London, who has been busy scrutinizing thousands of songs from the U.S. Billboard Hot 100 between 1960 and 2010. For the purpose of the study, which has been published in the Royal Society Open Science journal, Mauch split these 50 years into three main evolutionary leaps: soul, disco and hip-hop. 


Next, his team began analyzing a vast collection of music 'fossils' from these decades. To gather a significant quantity of music, the team used 30-second samples of more than 17,000 songs.

Music is actually highly mathematical and therefore easy to analyze and classify. It has harmonics, chord changes, rhythm, and timbral qualities; all of which were taken into account when scanning the data using information retrieval and text-mining tools​.

One of the most reassuring conclusions that Mauch makes in his study is that, contrary to popular belief, music diversity has not in fact declined. The data show that there is no evidence of chart homogenization, but instead music trends have periods of stasis followed by rapid change. "You take something that exists. And that in biology would be genes. But it's not genes here. You just take some styles. You recombine them, like genes are recombined, and you change them as well—a bit like mutation," says Mauch.

So if you're worried that music is becoming stagnant, then perhaps it is instead signaling the next revolution. So take a minute to compose yourself, let's embark on a journey through the pop charts.


From 1960 onwards, the dominant seventh chord all but disappeared from music. Examples of this chord can be found in Rock Around The Clock by Bill Haley and the Comets or I Feel So Bad by Elvis Presley. This was treble-ing news as it signaled the 'death' of jazz and blues.

Mauch says 1964 was the first of our three music revolutions: the rock and soul revolution. For rock, think Sympathy For The Devil by The Rolling Stones, and for soul recall I Heard It Through The Grapevine by Marvin Gaye.

The dominant seventh chord was replaced with the minor seventh: Lady Marmalade by LaBelle or That's The Way (I Like It) by KC & The Sunshine Band as the ‘60s crept towards the ‘70s.

By the end of the ‘70s, Mauch comments: "We can really see the influx of funk, which is really turning into disco," with hits like Tragedy by The Bee Gees.


As the ‘80s rolled in, it signaled the disco, new wave and hard rock revolution in 1983. However, the ‘80s became a sluggish time for the progression of music. 1986 stands out as a period of minimum change in diversity where chart-toppers all sounded the most alike. For example, Don't Leave Me This Way by The Communards, Living On A Prayer by Bon Jovi, and Papa Don't Preach by Madonna were all hits in 1986.

Just when music was in a progression depression, it was saved by rap and hip-hop in 1991. Tracks like Mama Said Knock You Out by LL Cool J led the biggest explosion of change in music since 1960. "This is so prominent in our analysis, because we looked at harmony—and rap and hip-hop don't use a lot of harmony. The emphasis is on speech sounds and rhythm," said Mauch, whilst discussing which elements of music they used to categorize the songs.

This brings us to modern day music; anything after 2010 wasn't included in the analysis. I could drum up a few more examples but I think i'll leave you to rock out, or baroque out, if you'd prefer.

[Via Royal Society Open Science, Scientific American, BBC]


  • tag
  • music,

  • rock,

  • fossil,

  • history,

  • funk,

  • soul,

  • blues,

  • jazz,

  • hip hop,

  • rap