Music Focus 2: Know Your Decade

08/06/2012 19:56

Have you ever identified a song as old purely by its sound? Have you ever sensed a vibe of a certain decade in a song? Have you ever wondered what it is that defines the sound of that decade? If so, read on. In this article I’m going to plunge a few decades into the past, showing what is typical of each one and how music from a particular decade can be identified by how it sounds. It may seem trivial at the first glance, yet there are many interesting facts about which you may not know yet. To make it even more interesting, I’m going to include samples of songs and instruments typical for certain periods. I will concentrate on mainstream music (simply because it’s the best known) of the 1960s, ‘70s, ‘80s and ‘90s. Ready? Turn on your speakers and continue...


The Big Shift: Mid-‘60s


Firstly, I’d like to point out what defines music as such – musical instruments. While they are not the be all and end all of music, it’s the instruments which convert a composer’s thoughts to sound you hear. The reason why I’m stressing this aspect is that in the period from the late ‘60s to the mid-‘80s, the range of instruments at use changed dramatically. The biggest shift was from acoustic instruments to electronic instruments.


By acoustic instruments I mean those which create sound by physical means, i.e. anything from a flute or violin to a piano or an electric guitar. Yes, an electric guitar is an acoustic instrument, you generate sound by strumming the strings, and then the sound goes through an amplifier.


Acoustic music was recorded live in the studio (because no electronic, let alone digital equipment was available back then to aid the recording process) on tapes, and thus it retains its distinctive character. The recordings were published on vinyls, which have some downsides: they are subject to wear and dust buildup, and thus when played, the records often hum, crack, pop and hiss.


Your typical acoustic record of the 1960s would sound something like “Tainted Love”. No, not the one by Marilyn Manson. Not even the popular Soft Cell version. I mean the very original (and paradoxically very unknown) version by Gloria Jones from 1964:


Somewhere between acoustic and electronic instruments stands the infamous Mellotron, typical of the ‘60s. It was a keyboard instrument which featured 8 seconds of sampled flute and string sounds on magnetic tapes. There was a tape under each key, and it played when pressed. The instrument was known for its unreliability, but nevertheless was massively used by many bands from Genesis and Yes to Beatles. You can hear its distinctive sound in the introduction of “Strawberry Fields Forever”:


Electronics Emerge: Late ‘60s to Mid-‘70s


At the turn of the 1960s and 1970s, first electronic instruments began to be used – synthesizers. They differ from acoustic instruments in the way they produce sound – electric current is generated in the form of a regular wave, which is then modified and driven through an amplifier. The reason why most synthesizers use piano keyboard is solely that the keyboard was chosen as the preferred method to control them. Theoretically, you can control a synthesizer with forks and bowls if you want (and believe it or not, some people really do this).


One of the most well-known early synthesizers was the Minimoog invented in 1970. Ah yes, I know you’re waiting for this: Gershon Kingsley’s “Popcorn”: 

The synthesizer Kingsley used here was Minimoog’s older brother, but essentially they were the same.


Moog synthesizers are the fathers of analog synthesizers which were to be used ever after. However, during the 1970s, acoustic instruments were still dominating for a few simple reasons. First – tradition. People were used to hearing them and were not so thrilled to hear music people like Kingsley did. Second – the synthesizers were very simple – it wasn’t until late ‘70s that polyphonic synthesizers became competitive enough to stand equal to acoustic instruments. Most of the synthesizers of the 1970s were monophonic (i.e. could play only one note at a time). Moreover, they were incredibly expensive.


As far as the sound of the 1970s is concerned, it is pretty much the same as the ‘60s, except for these monophonic synthesizers. Typical use of such a synthesizer in acoustic music can be heard in a well known song by Pink Floyd, “Welcome to the Machine”, from around 3 minutes on:


Synths Take Over: Late ‘70s to Early ‘80s


From the early ‘80s, pop music radically shifted towards electronic music. There were a few expensive, but available polyphonic synthesizers, and the so-called ‘drum machines’ were beginning to appear here and there as well.


What has to be understood is the fact that from around 1982 up to roughly 1995 the choice of synthesizers used by artists all over the world was not that wide. Some were so expensive that only a few bands could afford them, and some so cheap that everyone used them. Nevertheless, because of this, there is a good chance that if you know these synthesizers, you can easily tell the exact type which was used in a song you hear.


A nice demonstration of this fact is perhaps the most famous drum machine of the ‘80s used in almost all hip-hop production of that decade: the Roland TR-808. I’m sure you know its cliché sound:


Another well-known synthesizer very popular in this period is the Oberheim OB-Xa. Again, here’s one chord sequence everyone knows (even when many of us try hard to forget it, haha):


The early ‘80s are typical of these simple early synthesizers. Still, synthesizers like Oberheim OB-Xa were analog. That means that they still used the more or less primitive technology of making sound using waves generated by voltage controlled oscillators which were then modified in different ways and finally driven through an amp. The more oscillators you had and the more editing options such as filters you had, the more complicated it was to use the synthesizer (and the more expensive the thing was). Apart from that, the sonic limitations of analog synthesizers were quite restrictive. The emerging digital technology meant a breakthrough in the musical field as well: the digital synthesizer.


Digital Sound: the ‘80s and ‘90s


The difference between analog and digital synthesizers is huge. While analog synthesizers were limited by the few waveforms their oscillators could produce (usually only a sine, saw and square wave), digital synthesizers had no such limitations. Add dozens of memory slots to remember the settings (That’s right, there was no such thing on analogs. You had to write all the parameters down and dial them back in when you needed.) and subtract all the troubles you could have with analogs (For example when the temperature changed, the instruments got out of tune. It meant that you had to tune them manually much like you tune a violin), and you have an image of the digital synthesizers’ popularity in the mid-‘80s.


The combination of analog and digital synthesizers is typical of the whole 1980s, and you can tell analog synthesizers from digital ones very easily: analogs produce simple waveforms like the above-mentioned Oberheim, while digital synths often can make rich, diverse synthetic sounds.


One of the most affordable digital synthesizers was the Yamaha DX-7. It can be heard in the intro to Whitney Houston’s “Greatest Love of All”:


The younger sister of the DX-7 is Roland D-50 which you have heard many times as well. Let’s mention perhaps the best-known D-50 sound heard at the beginning of Enya’s “Orinoco Flow”:


All in all, the 1980s are all synthesized. And not unintentionally. While later in the ‘90s music seems to be less artificial, the ‘80s were all about artificiality. The sounds I mentioned are only a few of the many typical ones that were being used in this decade with wild abandon. The aforementioned drum machines combined with sparkly bells and simple deep basslines are the signature of the ‘80s music in general. If you really need a typical example of all these practices applied in practice, I can give you one that speaks for all. It would be pretty much anything by Modern Talking, yet I chose “Cheri Cheri Lady” for the bells, which constitute a very important instrument of the decade:


The last feature of the ‘80s I will mention is the use of vocals. The lyrics are often not important and the singer’s voice serves just as another instrument. Apart from that, foreign English accents are very frequent throughout the ‘80s. Mispronunciation was very common at that time. Let me show you one of my favorites. The accent even made me laugh the first time I heard this:


The 1990s aren’t that different in their sound. One of the most important differences, though, is the invention of the compact disc, which eliminated the sonic imperfections of vinyls. The ‘90s are crystal clear, loud and repetitive. Yes, repetitive. And repetitive. In melodies, lyrics, everything. Moreover, the songs are still very simplistic, much like they were in the ‘80s.


While the instruments of the 1990s are pretty much of the same technology as in the ‘80s, one typical feature by which you can often tell the ‘90s from the ‘80s is, apart from the repetitiveness I mentioned, even greater minimalism in lyrics. You need no other example than the famous, short and senseless lyrics of “King of My Castle” from 1997:


Repetitiveness and simplicity was present in the music as well. There were certain chord riffs and melodies which were used over and over by different artists only with minor alterations. Instead of an exhaustive list of comparisons, I’m going to choose one track which, in my opinion, is the manifesto of all the principles I mentioned: “Around the World (La La La La La)” by ATC. As the name implies, the lyrics are quite simple (and that’s the prettiest word I could find to describe them), not mentioning the repetitive melody patterns. Hear it yourself. I’m sure you did before:


An Era Ends: The Turn of the Century


Towards the end of the ‘90s, revivals of popular ‘80s tracks were more and more frequent, and this is a tendency I’m going to end this article with. Reviving or ‘covering’ older songs from the 1980s and ‘90s is very common even today, and most of the young people listening to today’s hits don’t even realize that these songs are twenty years old, and that often the original versions were much better. But that’s a matter of taste, of course.


I’ll list two such examples for you. First, “Infinity” in its 2009 version

as opposed to the original


And finally, to close the article, a song which I personally loathe for its copycat nature: “Reach Out (And Touch Me)” by Hilary Duff. This song is essentially a combination of the Soft Cell version of “Tainted Love”


and Depeche Mode’s “Personal Jesus”


I find procedures like this sad, to say the least. But to a large extent, that’s the face of today’s popular music.


This is where I’m going to stop as I believe you are now pretty exhausted from all the information listed in this article. However, I hope that you feel enriched and that you learned something new and interesting. I hope that from now on music will mean more to you as you know what’s the story behind the scenes. Should you have any questions, feel free to ask. I’ll be glad to answer them for you.

Oliver Méres



Date: 12/06/2012

By: EM

Subject: so true!

you mean like these very original songs? :D

Date: 12/06/2012

By: Olivier

Subject: Re: so true!

Yeah, I've seen that performance some time ago. But it has to be noted that there's a difference between using a common chord progression and copying whole ideas/themes/melodies.

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