News From Terre Haute, Indiana

August 11, 2012

Has mankind’s creativity stalled out?

Mike Hinkle
CNHI News Service

---- — Suppose I was to say, “Today’s music is too loud and isn’t as creative as music from the past.” How would you respond? You might agree. You might give me a patronizing smile and say, “This criticism is nothing new. "Every aging generation believes the newer music doesn’t measure up to the old. And you are, after all, a granddad now.” Or you might have an open mind and invite me to back up my statement.

As it turns out, there is recent scientific research lending empirical support to those who are nostalgic about music of the past. They really don’t make it like they used to.

Apparently, there is a vast database capable of applying complex algorithms to the analysis of pop music generated for the past 50 years. This technological phenomenon is called “The Million Song Dataset.” Programs can tap into this database and apply numerical values to audio and lyrical content and these programs also can measure the “intrinsic loudness” at which a song is recorded.

A group of scientists at the Spanish National Research Council applied these programs to every pop song recorded from 1955 to 2010. The results of the study appeared in the Reuters Science News on Aug. 1. Here’s the headline: “Pop music too loud and all sounds the same: official.”

The study results appear in the most recent issue of the journal Scientific Reports. The researchers, headed by Joan Serra, an artificial intelligence specialist, found that music companies have gradually recorded songs at higher and higher sound and this practice produces louder volumes even if the amplifier is tuned to the same setting levels used to play older music. This increases what scientists call “the intrinsic loudness” of the music."

Many of us have suspected for years that the music industry has been waging a “loudness war” as it seeks ways to distinguish their offerings from those of competitors. Now, there is respectable scientific support for the suspicion.

But the loudness issue might be overlooked if the quality of the music was keeping pace with the rising volume. Unfortunately, this is not the case. The researchers found shrinking variability between note combinations and transitions; meaning that chords and melodies have diminished in the past 50 years. The result is that in the last half-century music (and, if I may say, political discourse) has grown louder while losing the value of its content.

People who limit their musical interests to modern pop are being assaulted with higher volumes while at the same time being lulled by blander content. This might be dismissed as nothing more than a curious manifestation of modern taste. But there are indications that evaporating creativity is not limited to the music world.

So far, there’s no scientific research to back me up on this, but my observations tell me there are corresponding evaporations in the quality of books and entertainment.

At writers’ conferences and book festivals I attend around the country, industry representatives say the publishing world is increasingly committed to formulaic pursuits.

Books by successful authors thrive even if the quality of the content is mediocre. Sequels to successful books thrive even if they are faint shadows of the earlier meritorious work.

These days, almost every important movie coming out of Hollywood falls into one of four categories: (1) it is a remake of an earlier successful film; (2) it is a sequel (or prequel) to an earlier successful film; (3) it is an adaptation from a comic book or video game; or, (4) it is a combination of some or all of the above.

The film industry, like the music business and publishing, appears to be suffering from an inability to tap into new veins of creativity.

The ramping up and dumbing down of popular culture seems to be symptomatic of a larger epidemic. We are witnessing an alarming “sag” in modern creativity. We are cruising along on “well-worn” paths and aren’t comfortable with challenging new popular innovations.

We need a creative “jumpstart.” The recent edition of Science News suggests the human brain is capable of “refinding” its childish thirst for new paths. There is no anatomical reason for humanity to reach a creative plateau and simply stall out. There is certainly no excuse for a society to hit a creative peak and settle quietly into an apathetic decline.

We really don’t have to bemoan the fact “they don’t make it like they used to.” We have the opportunity to make it better than it ever was.

Mike Hinkle is a columnist for The Edmond (Okla.) Sun.