Why Do Mainstream Songs Often Sound The Same?

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When I listen to the radio, I’m often boggled by the way songs sound familiar to me or similar even. And it’s on more than one level. Let’s be clear, I’m not talking cross-genre – obviously, something in metal or alternative doesn’t have the same sound as something in pop.

However,  a LOT of hip-hop, pop, and mainstream music have a similar sound. So, I began paying attention and I found several reasons why. 

The goal of the music industry is to make money. To that end, record labels have purposely marketed songs that make sounds that appeal to us, have dialed into our nostalgia, and have literally forced songs into earworms. That’s why many popular, mainstream songs sound the same! 

Let me break this down further for you, so you can see and “hear it” for yourself! 

The Four Chords & The Millennial Whoop 

Discovered by comedy band The Axis Of Awesome, there are four chords present in so many pop songs that it cannot be ignored as a coincidence. Humans seem to go crazy for this sound. And it may be something that came about in a purely accidental situation.

A basic concept in learning to play songs by ear is the “1 4 5 progression”, or the “3 chord song” or the “1 4 5 6 progression”, or the 4-chord song. This means that most musicians are taught this progression of chords from the beginning and therefore it often becomes the most common underlying sequence of chords in songs.

There might be different keys, different arrangements, or even various styles, but those 3 or 4 chords (usually 4) are the same progression! 

And you wondered why cross-overs were becoming more prevalent? Because whether it’s country or hip-hop, there is a very similar chord structure or pitch progression. 

Musician Patrick Metzer calls the second phenomenon the “Millennial Whoop”. It’s a melodic sequence of notes that alternate between the fifth and third notes of a major scale, before quickly returning to the fifth note. It’s been around for as long as music has been composed, however, in recent years we are seeing an over-abundance of its use – particularly in pop music.

If your ears can take it, here’s a nice long sampling of artists using The Millennial Whoop. And it comes from acts you don’t immediately imagine would sound similar – Kings of Leon, Katy Perry, Iggy Azalea, Justin Beiber, will.i.am, Frank Ocean, Fall Out Boy, Kelly Clarkson… and the list could just…keep…going! 

Check out this video on an article by Adam Epstein from QUARTZ if you want to know more about that special sound – “The Millennial Whoop”: The same annoying whooping sound is showing up in every popular song. But watch it quick, because there is a paywall for good journalism! 

Metzger states in his blog The Patterning, “A singer usually belts these notes with an “Oh” phoneme, often in a “Wa-oh-wa-oh” pattern. And it’s in so many pop songs it’s criminal.” Believe me, once you hear it and recognize it, you’ll keep on hearing it whenever you listen to mainstream pop. You’re welcome.  

He even did a Tedx Talk – 

But this isn’t the sound that makes pop music begin to meld together. Think of those falsettos – the overabundance of them – as if these singers have something to prove and this is just the only way to do it?

It’s getting pretty bad when singers are changing the way they pronounce words just to sound similar to what’s popular. But they do it. 

And lest we forget, another tool for making a singer’s voice perfectly pitched for your listening pleasure is autotune… which as was mentioned in my article on that subject “Why Do Musicians Use Autotune? Does Autotune Help?”.

The more people hear pitch-corrected material, the more they come to expect perfection from audio samples – leading to a never-ending cycle. This cycle has changed the music industry. Despite the hate autotune gets, industry insiders say that the plug-in is used on nearly every record these days. 

Emulating Sounds that Appeal to a Mass Audience

In 2014, Snoop Dogg asked 50 Cent what he missed most about the past when hip hop “was what it was.” 50 Cent replied, “authenticity,” which led to Snoop’s infamous imitation of today’s rappers: warning language

His point was that artists are often found doing the opposite of what rap was originally about – originality and being a unique voice. Instead, rap went through a time wherein artists followed the trend of whatever was in fashion.

Artists who are considered popular or mainstream often take fewer risks with their sound. But this isn’t really a new trend. I remember the 80s and ALL THOSE SYNTHS!!! Of course, not all of those songs sound alike, but you get my point. If something sells, you’re going to find a lot of it in popular or mainstream music. 

Speaking of both popularity and synthesizers, I cannot forget to mention how the use of these instruments has possibly homogenized timbre and kept us away from more unique sounds. After all, it’s easier to press a button and get the exact same generic electric drum sound than to use the actual drumset and get varied sounds from it.

Tools used by DJs and sound producers are made for precision and not variation. When more and more people use the same tools with the same pauses and “perfect” sounds, everything created with them begins to sound similar. 

As William Kuechenberg of CRACKED so eloquently puts it in his article “5 Reasons All Modern Pop Music Sounds The Same” – 

If you listen to anything besides Symphonic Hungarian Turbofolk you’ve probably heard music recorded fully or in part on GarageBand or Logic, its paid counterpart. Radiohead, Nine Inch Nails, St. Vincent — GarageBand is ubiquitous as hell. Rihanna’s song “Umbrella” is famously built around a slightly modified GarageBand loop, and Usher’s “Love in This Club” is built almost entirely from free loops included on every Apple device. If you have an iPhone or a MacBook, the only thing stopping you from being Usher and writing hit songs is perfect six pack abs and a disease where wearing a shirt makes you burst into flames. Listen to enough music and you’ll start hearing the same thing over and over again. Not just the same melodies or phrases or time signatures; the literal, actual same music.

William Keuchenburg, 2021

Also, specific producers and songwriters are sought after once they’ve seen success. As years go by, more songs have been produced by fewer and fewer topline songwriters and producers. These same people oversee the combinations of all the separately created sounds. That means, everything starts to sound more or less the same.

For instance, 2010-2014, the top ten producers wrote about 40% of songs that achieved top ten rankings on the Billboard Hot 100. From 2015 – 2017 the same producers and writers held 32%- 40% of the top Billboard rankings. According to The Pudding, Max Martin (a Swedish songwriter and producer that has been going strong since he worked with Britney Spears and The Backstreet Boys in the 90s) was especially prolific.

Nostalgic Sounds for your Listening Pleasure

I was listening to Olivia Rodrigo on the local radio station the other day. I give it to her, she has a set of pipes. Boy-howdy! But, as she was singing, I suddenly got this tingle down my spine. Wait! I was jamming to it not just because she sounded good, but because the song and her singing reminded me of something. And then, I was transported back in time to another angst-filled anthem. Paramore!  You be the judge – 

Olivia Rodrigo – good 4 u

Paramore – Misery Business

They sound so similar that people have even created MASH-UPS of the two songs! The only difference I hear is pitch, a bit of melodic difference, and maybe a shift of 3 bpm? Wow… 

No, they don’t sound EXACTLY the same, but so very close that it gave me that sensation, you know? Nostalgia. There have been a LOT of times that this has happened to me. So many times that I’m not even going to share more examples. After all, you probably have had this happen to you, too. So, the main reason I like Olivia’s song is…Nostalgia!  

Nostalgia is used all over popular music. From the familiar Bo Diddley Beat to the Amen Drum Break – these tools make us feel warm and bring us a sense of familiarity while listening to a song, even if we’ve never heard it before. There are plenty of covers out there, too. These capitalize off of the nostalgia the audience might feel for a previous song.

Chances are if a song brings the audience a sense of nostalgia, the audience will be streaming it or purchasing the song. It will be popular. And that’s what artists and record labels want. Nothing wrong with that, but it can also lead to stagnation in the sound of music.

Radio Station Over-Play Popular Songs

Let me be clear. They don’t overplay songs after they know they are popular with fans. No. Record labels have specific data analysis tools that help them pinpoint the next hits. Then, they get with radio conglomerates to insure it happens by getting it overplayed.

Have you ever listened to a song on the radio and thought, “Well, I don’t like it, but the rhythm is kind of catchy.” Next thing you know, you’ve heard it every time you get in your vehicle and you’re vibing to it? Yeah, you’ve just been hoodwinked. According to Mic.com – 

Once a worthy song or artist emerges from the data, radio conglomerates have mechanisms in place to ensure that music will connect with an audience. Clear Channel’s “On the Verge” program is one of the most talked about. When a song is dubbed “On the Verge,” every station in the Clear Channel network has to play it at least 150 times — blasting it to a potential network of about 245 million listeners. It’s a cycle. As reported by the Atlantic, ‘Top 40 stations last year played the 10 biggest songs almost twice as much as they did a decade ago.

Mike Barnes, Mic.com, 2015

This is why you wind up getting a song stuck in your head like an earworm! I mean, after commuting for a week, I think I’ve heard to the point that I know every word. And I don’t necessarily love the song. 

It’s not just radio stations! Watching trailers or ads with pop songs in them will have you looping it in your head. TikTok – if a song is trending in a social media community, it gets used over and over again, am I right? 

This all feeds into the monster of mainstream pop music – where songs begin to sound so similar to one another. It’s not just an annoyance for some of us. It’s planned. 

***

I get tired of hearing similar sounds over and over again. I’m not alone. This is why I have to mention the positive effect this has. The fact that so much mainstream music sounds alike has driven people to the internet to find new sounds that appeal to their appetite for something unique and varied. Artists are capitalizing on this through the use of social media. 

This is why I love finding untapped sounds out there, away from mainstream radio. That’s why I decided to begin a blog about music and untapped artists – so I could share those finds with other people like me.

With the advent of YouTube and SoundCloud along with social media marketing – new artists are on the rise with unique sounds. And a lot of us appreciate that. It’s not often that a unique sound gets rewarded by going mainstream, but when it happens, I cheer. If they never go mainstream, that’s okay. So long as they keep making music, and find a way to make a living off of it – I’m happy to share it.   

By the way, do yourself a favor and look down at the sources and enjoy Mr. Kuechenberg’s full article. You’ll thank me. 


SOURCES: 

https://www.cosmopolitan.com/uk/entertainment/news/a45622/reason-all-pop-song-sounds-the-same/

https://pudding.cool/2018/05/similarity/

https://www.cracked.com/article_29346_5-reasons-all-modern-pop-music-sounds-same.html – Mr. Kuechenberg’s article

https://www.mic.com/articles/107896/scientists-finally-prove-why-pop-music-all-sounds-the-same

https://thepatterning.com/2016/08/20/the-millennial-whoop-a-glorious-obsession-with-the-melodic-alternation-between-the-fifth-and-the-third/

As always, if you want to share more, or feel I’ve missed something, let me know by emailing untappedsoundnc@gmail.com.

Rachel Adams

I would have previously thought of myself as an audiophile. But by gaming and listening to my children and their friends, I've been introduced to an entire realm of artists that are not on the radio.