I had a great conversation yesterday with Matthias Mauch, a computational music researcher at the Centre for Digital Music at Queen Mary College in London, about research he undertook in the evolution of one much-reviled aspect of pop song culture — namely, the cheesy “gear change” that has been part of pop song writing in the western world since the early days of the genre in the mid 20th century.
By “gear change,” Mauch means key change. Gear changes, e.g., when a song goes up by a semi-tone or tone in a reprise of its chorus, are widely disliked because they happen way too often and seem to be a crutch for unimaginative songwriters to build drama in a song.
In an intriguing and easily accessible blog post the scientist and musician wrote during his time as a research fellow at Last.fm, Mauch shows how a computational analysis of songs in the UK pop charts over several decades corroborates this widely held disdain for gear changes in pop songs.
“The proportion of songs with gear shifts is substantially declining over the history of the charts, from a staggering 15% in and around 1960 to consistently lower than 4% in the first decade of the current century.”
Interestingly though, according to Mauch’s research, gear changes are still popular around Christmas time. There’s nothing like the holiday season to bring out people’s sentimental side.