Lead vocal tracks in popular music ‘got quieter over the years’

While many people will love belting out their favourite song at the top of their lungs, a new study suggests our favourite singers have become quieter over the years.

Researchers analysed hundreds of popular song recordings from 1946 to 2020, tracking the volume of lead singers’ vocals and bands they played with.

They found that contrary to expectations, the lead vocal to accompaniment ratio – or LAR – decreased over the decades in question.

This means that, relative to their bands, lead singers were getting quieter.

Researchers from the University of Oldenburg in Germany looked at the four highest-ranked songs from the Billboard Hot 100 chart for each year from 1946 to 2020.

They found after the Second World War, the vocals got quieter in songs until 1975 – by which time they were only one decibel louder on average – after which the volume remained more or less constant.

Researchers studied the database of 300 tracks by separating vocals from the mixture of sounds in each recording.

They also wanted to determine whether LAR values changed over time to improve the intelligibility of lyrics or if changes in music technology were involved.

According to the findings, changes in music technology appear to be behind the observed decrease until 1975.

Study author Kai Siedenburg said: “Another possibility involves the stylistic evolution within popular music.”

To test this out, the researchers looked at the genres of music, analysing 414 songs nominated for Grammy Awards in the genres of country, rap, pop, rock, and metal, between 1990 and 2020.

They say that as might be expected, lead singer vocals were loudest relative to the music on country songs, followed by rap and pop.

For rock it was zero, negative for metal, and significantly higher for solo artists versus bands.

Mr Siedenburg said: “Guitar riffs are a distinctive feature of rock and metal, with guitars taking a position comparable to lead vocals.”

The authors conclude: “In summary, the level of lead vocals in representative recordings of popular music have decreased until the mid 1970s and remained relatively constant from thereafter.

“Further, vocal level possesses characteristic levels in different musical genres and tends to be higher for solo artists compared to bands.

“Vocal level may be interpreted as an index of prominence of vocals in the mix, which was shown to vary over time and genre, rather than being a static factor of music production.”

The findings are published in JASA Express Letters, published on behalf of the Acoustical Society of America.

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