Listening to the radio can be a frustrating experience, and there are some obvious reasons: even your favourite stations are going to play songs you don’t like, and they tell you almost every minute in the most annoying way just how awesome they are (not to speak of the amount of awful radio commercials one is exposed to during an average car drive).
But there’s another, more subtle reason: After listening to the radio for some time, everything just sounds the same. Even songs you once thought sounded special seem to vanish without a trace in the sea of boring mainstream pop music.
There are basically 3 reasons for this phenomenon:
- Composition Man is a creature of habit, and this is especially true when it comes to music. The perception that some intervals and chord progressions are more harmonic and beautiful than others seems to be engraved deeply into our culture, and even into our brain. Thus there are some simple schemes that seem to be used in basically every single pop song, as this video famously demonstrates: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=oOlDewpCfZQ
- Music production The modern production process has become a war for attention. The notion: Music needs to be compressed to the absolute maximum to be able to compete on the market. Bands bring their recordings to mastering studios and instruct them to make it “at least as loud as this other (really loud) band”, and many sound engineers have their own secret technique for making things louder. The result can be heard in this video: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=3Gmex_4hreQ
- Broadcasting Radio stations certainly have a difficult task: They have to broadcast music with an immense range of styles and loudness levels and still create their own, somewhat distinct sound, and without forcing their listeners to change the volume whenever a new song starts. So they use a variety of tools - from compressors to equalisers - to harmonize their output. The result? You got it - everything just sounds alike.
So - are there any good news, you might ask. Fortunately, yes. The implementation of loudness measurement into modern audio production and broadcasting equipment will eventually end the loudness war. And although I was convinced for a long time that good music should contain at least a few not-so-mainstream chords, there are just too many great and unique songs with simple harmonies that prove the opposite.
What makes music unique, then? Turns out it doesn’t necessarily take much. I believe one thing that makes Pharrell William’s “Happy” stand out from the crowd is the unusual timing of the open hi-hat: Throughout the song, it is played on the 3rd beat (instead of the 4th, as one would expect). This ever so subtle difference is all it takes to give the rhythm a special touch. As often in life, it’s the details that matter.