Acoustic Instruments: A Tale of Two Millennia

October 1, 2013

When Bob Dylan “went electric” at the 1965 Newport Folk Festival, his folkie fans freaked. Here was their hero, known for singing solo in the Village with an acoustic guitar and a harmonica around his neck, with an electric Fender Stratocaster, a leather jacket, and a backing band. (At least he still had the harmonica.)

Not only did this become one of the most iconic moments of the ’60s, but it is perhaps the most famous encapsulation of an ongoing trend from the ’50s to right around the year 2000 — a trend away from “acoustic” sounds and towards an “electric,” and then “electronic” ones.

The Echo Nest is home to the largest database about music in the world, which is how we power so many leading music discovery services. We never stop working on new features for our API, and within the past few months, one thing we’ve been looking at is the “acousticness” of music.

We define “acousticness” as just what you would probably think it is — how many prominent acoustic sounds a given track has (i.e. acoustic guitar and tambourine), vs. how many electronic sounds it has (i.e. synthesizer and drum machine). To accomplish this across over 18 million tracks, we taught our audio analysis system to determine how acoustic a given track is, just by analyzing the audio file.

What we found: Popular music started out fairly acoustic in the ’50s. After that, its “acousticness” declined steadily, decade after decade, mirroring technology’s integration into greater society at large:

You don’t have to be Skrillex to appreciate that music has gotten more electronic, of course. And, everybody knows that the ‘80s saw a big rise in drum machines and synthesizer. We all have an instinctive sense that music has sounded more electronic, and less acoustic, over time.

We can trust our ears, this time around. The data bears out conventional wisdom (and, in a sense, what we all know about acousticness by intuition proves that our audio analysis is working properly): Popular music has in fact shifted away from acoustic sounds and towards electronic ones, although the ratio has been fairly stable since the turn of the millennium.

See previous installments of our “audio trends over time” analysis: