How Pop Music’s ‘Bounciness’ Has Shifted Since 1950

October 16, 2013

Some music just seems to bounce right along, like the proverbial bouncing ball that guided televised singalongs of yore. It sounds spikey, with a in-and-out rhythm — think choppy reggae guitar, or booming techno beats. Other kinds of music are more sonorous, languorous, and smooth, with sweeping string sections, flowing synths, and other sounds that glide smoothly from one note to the next.

As part of our ongoing research into audio trends over time, The Echo Nest data alchemist Glenn McDonald looked into how “bouncy” popular music has been every year since 1950. Have we liked our music spikier-sounding at some points, and smoother at others? And overall, has music been growing generally bouncier, or have we liked it smoother over time?

The data knows.

The Echo Nest’s world-leading music intelligence looks at music from many angles, combining what people say about music with audio analysis of the audio files themselves (a system of checks and balances, so to speak). We’re always refining and building out audio attributes, and have been testing and developing internally a new one called Bounciness.

"Bounciness is a measure of how rhythmic and sonically spiky the music is," explains McDonald. "So, tech house would have high bounciness, as would reggae or salsa. Low bounciness would be atmospheric black metal or choral music.”

To determine bounciness over time, McDonald ran the hotttest 5,000 songs from every year in the modern pop music era, from 1950 to 2013, looking at how our experimental bounciness attribute varied over time. As you can see in the chart, people in the early ’50s liked their music really bouncy. Then, they preferred it smoother and smoother, through the end of the ’60s.

In the ’70s, popular music grew bouncier once again — but that was its last peak. Music has been getting less bouncy (i.e. smoother) ever since:

Maybe we just like our music with less bounciness, as the years have passed, similarly to the way a bouncing ball bounces less over time. Or, maybe we’ve been making our music more complex, adding more and more bits (and then compressing our music to make it louder), so that there’s just less space in between the notes.

For whatever reason, The Echo Nest’s bounciness over time data is conclusive: Pop music started out bouncy, smoothed out, got bouncy again, and then smoothed out. In other words, music has been on quite a bouncy ride since the ’50s (ouch).

Here are a couple examples of what bouncy music sounds like.

Tech House:

Reggae:

And here are a couple examples of what super un-bouncy music sounds like.

Atmospheric Black Metal:

Choral:

In related news, McDonald used this experimental bounciness audio attribute to delve into the question of whether music has been getting happier or sadder, as part of an examination into a BBC-originated report about music getting sadder over time. As it turns out, the emotional complexity of music is a bit more nuanced than “major is happy and minor is sad.”

Previous research into audio trends over time: