New Study of Music Finds the Eighties Were Pretty Boring

May 6th, 2015

Researchers in London used a new computer program to analyze the evolution of popular music by feeding it thousands of songs from the past 55 years.

Their biggest discovery: the Eighties were pretty boring.

That will be surprising news to guitar fans, who count the decade as one of the best for the instrument. It was in the Eighties, after all, that we saw the rise of acts like Van Halen, Mötley Crüe, Metallica, and Guns N’ Roses, not to mention continuing efforts from Seventies stalwarts like Queen, AC/DC, ZZ Top and Rush. The Eighties also gave us virtuoso players like Yngwie Malmsteen, Steve Vai and Joe Satriani, to name a few.

But the study was looking for diversity of styles. In fact, it found that 1983 was actually a landmark year for innovative styles and variety. The year was dominated by guitar-heavy arena rock (Van Halen, Mötley Crüe), aggressive synthesized percussion (Phil Collins), new wave pop (the Police) and dance pop (Madonna).

But these styles pushed out competing genres, including country and folk. As a result, by the decade’s middle-to-late period, pop music was at its most homogenous period of the past 50 years and did not change until the emergence of rap and hip-hop.

“Put in terms of styles, the decline of diversity is due to the dominance of genres such as new wave, disco, hard rock,” write the researchers. “Its recovery is due to their waning with the rise of rap and related genres.”

The London-based research team based its findings on songs that appeared on Billboard’s Hot-100 list dating back to 1960. The team downloaded nearly every song on the list—close to 17,000 tracks—and let its computer program scan each song for harmony and timbre.

The results allowed the researchers to see when certain instruments and chords became fashionable and dominated music, as well as when they faded from popularity.

For example, dominant seventh chords appeared in much pop music of the Sixties, then declined in use as minor chords came to prominence in hard rock and metal as well as soul and funk.

In addition, loud guitar music peaked in 1966 (hello, Jimi!) and again in 1985 as the instrument enjoyed another surge of popularity.

By creating a “fossil record” of each song, the program was able to chart the evolution of pop music in terms of musical content, allowing researchers to study each period in terms of its musical diversity.

Overall, the study shows that, even with the Eighties lull, pop’s musical diversity hasn’t dropped sharply, even though many critics like to say it’s nowhere near as good as it used to be.

You can read more at and check out the entire study for yourself at Royal Society Open Science.

  • Larry Hoy

    Of course metal was making great leaps and strides during that decade, but you’re talking about popular music. Of course it is boring!

  • RocknDude

    Lame billboard charts. The good songs never made the charts because old people controlled it

  • John

    Music (& art in general) can’t & shouldn’t be plotted on x, y, & z axes, nor should it be “analyzed” by computers. Art is consumed by humans & it’s worth is calculated by how it makes you feel.

    Music in the 80s was a lot of things…often great, sometimes cheesy…but it was never boring.

  • Me from Brazil

    Boring? Whatch the video of “boys, boys, boys”…80’s boring?

  • Burke

    And today’s music isn’t boring. This writer is probably 24 and knows only music with no solos.

  • livedthroughthe80s

    I just have to say that this seems weird coming from a guitar based site. I mean, there was more music generated in the 80s than any other part of this century really! When an artist looks for inspiration they look at variety, I think it is kind of unappreciative to discount one of the most diverse periods of music history! Take it for what it is and move forward, no need to be sour about the past.

  • trendworthy

    a computer being used to explore music? isn’t that like a human listening to 64 bit blips and bleeps?

  • I say bogus. The history of popular music is a history of musical diversity. The 1980’s more than its fair share of “peacock” guitar players. We learned about Stevie Ray Vaughan in the 1980’s (first with David Bowie’s “Let’s Dance” album…pop). All the diverse guitar styles of the 80’s were colorful… Not simply the “peacock” players (meant with respect). Every generation has it’s R&B influences… Which is not devoid of guitar. On the contrary…. Nile Rodgers, Tony Maiden, Al McKay… All fantastic guitar players, second to none… But they are “pocket players” … Guitar parts most rock musicians can’t match. The 60’s had Motown… There were three guitar players in “the Funk Brothers” on almost all the tracks …. “Pocket” but not boring .

  • mindy

    I’m 53, so I remember the 80’s quite well.Compared to today’s garbage that dominates the airwaves,the music of the 80’s sounds pretty good in comparison.