As The Beat Goes On, It Gets More Accurate

October 8, 2013

The idea of playing music to a “click track” isn’t new. In fact it predates recording. Composers Beethoven and Salieri were both proponents of the modern metronome, patented in 1815, which keeps a steady time so that musicians can keep the beat more accurately.

As part of our ongoing investigation into audio trends over time, The Echo Nest data alchemist Glenn McDonald took a look at how the “mechanism,” or what one might call “click-trackiness” of popular music has changed in the past few decades. To do so, he ran the 5,000 hotttest songs from every year from 1950 to 2013 through The Echo Nest’s deep musical intelligence platform, built on the largest database about music in the world.

He looked specifically at our “mechanism” rating, an experimental metric we have yet to release, but which we’ve been testing internally. Basically, it connotes how rigidly regular a song is, with organic, tempo-wandering music getting a low mechanism rating, and music that adheres strictly to a click track or, even more mechanistically, to a drum machine, receiving a higher mechanism rating.

What McDonald found, using The Echo Nest’s data: Popular music’s mechanism held pretty steady through the ’50s and ’60s, increasing slowly but steadily throughout the 70s, shooting way up during the ’80s (drum machines?) and a bit more in the ’90s (more drum machines?), mostly stabilizing after that, right up until the present day.

In other words, music has gotten more mechanistic over the past few decades, but it has stopped getting even more mechanistic. Some people say that overly mechanistic music lacks a human feel. Perhaps our popular music has gotten as mechanistic-sounding as it will get.

To listen to The Echo Nest’s idea of “mechanism,” play this song, which has a super-consistent BPM right until near the end, when it starts to vary:

And here’s one with a low mechanism rating (i.e. a tempo that wanders around). Its tempo variability is literally off the chart:

Previous research into audio trends over time: