Another reason why modern pop and rock suck

September 19, 2020 • 2:30 pm

The link to this video came from reader Andrea, who said,

This may be one reason why you can’t stand today’s music… an insane overuse of the supertonic… the second note on the scale. BTW, the guy in this video has a cool keyboard.
Combine supertonic obsession with autotuning, and you get a bunch of songs that not only all sound alike, but are also boring, turgid, and unoriginal. This video by Andrew Huang gives a bunch of examples. If you think this kind of music is as good as the great rock and soul of the Sixties and early Seventies, you’re just wrong. Rock music is circling the drain, and survives solely because young people have to have some kind of music to call their own.

90 thoughts on “Another reason why modern pop and rock suck

  1. Are there still majestic talents out there along the lines of Dylan and Paul Simon that are stymied by what pop music has become? Or would such talent, if it existed, transcend those limitations?

      1. Erm I have to disagree on this. Nightwish, Epica etc, groups like that are up there. Nightwish particually, Floor Jansen is one of the most versatile singers on the planet and Tuomas Holopainen is a brilliant songwriter/composer and the whole group is full of talent.


          1. Where did I make a direct comparison between nightwish and the Beatles?

            The initial question was about if talent along the lines of Dylan etc was still around essentially to which you said “no”.

            From my perspective I would say that Nightwish are definitely majestic and extremally talented especially when one considers the complexity of molding a orchestra and choir with metal and folk music in a harmonious way and is all composed by mainly one person.

            The fact that pretty much every music teacher, voice coach etc that reviews their performances are generally floored by the abilities, story telling, etc of their live performances should attest to their ability.

            Music is subjective to the listener however and I doubt you have heard every musical performer around on the planet today to make such a universal claim. I think at best the statement you can make is “No, not to my knowledge and opinion”.

            So no, they might not be on par with the beetles, I mean seriously who, they are still up their with the other greats. Its not like you have a musical ladder that consists of only the best on the top rung and every thing else is a turd. Up there means near the too rungs not on the top rung.

      2. The Stones are still around ( a no. 1 hit a few weeks ago ) and Fleetwood Mac. And Willie Nelson is forever around.

          1. I think he was trying to bring some perspective. Beatlemania was insane, and fed itself in a feedback loop of hysteria. The Beatles happened to be the ones caught up in cultural phenomena that could have only happened then and not any time since. Yes they made some very nice music but what makes that music seem so far above other music is all of the cultural stuff around it.

            1. I’m sorry but your comment that the Beatles’ greatness was “all of the cultural stuff around it” is ridiculous. The music stands on its own, and critics have recognized it.

              That’s like saying that Mozart and Beethoven were “just okay, but what made their music seem so good was all of the cultural stuff around it.”


        1. As I see it Beatlemania had little to do with listening to and enjoying the music for its own sake. To me Beatlemania is the girls screaming and swooning at their concerts despite being barely able to hear the music. I think this is the feeling of being caught up in a cultural moment.
          Then there’s the music. So many great songs. They all played instruments, they all sang. Real talent.

    1. I must say, I agree — for me rock is usually more guitar driven and plays a bit behind the beat and the tempo changes according to the feel, with interplay between the musicians.

      Rock also takes risks — at least occasionally. Pop never, almost by definition.

      1. And many bands — the early Beatles, fr’instance (or Maca throughout his solo career) — have bridged the difference between the two.

  2. Oh, the “You only have seven* notes to choose from to begin with …” excuse.


    The entire 400-year history of serious Western music and prior pop/jazz/rock was fine with this parameter … and the genius of the melody makers found thousands and thousands of remarkable, unique melody lines inside.

    Pounding on the 2nd like this is for cowards afraid to venture from home. They’d have to go out in the wide world, find a path not tread, let their talent write it down, discover counter-paths of interest, and at the end ‘bring it all home’ with a satisfying coda and resolving cadence.

    So ….. not.

    Let a child lead us back…

    with her vocal:

    Melody only:

    * there are actually twelve notes in the diatonic of a scale.

    1. Deutscher writes and performs beautiful pieces that are within the classical and romantic styles. She has demonstrated outstanding skill for her age. It isn’t clear to me that Deutscher has honed her own sound, in the way that Ligeti has, for instance.

      If anyone wants to survey more of that, and broaden their catalog, I’d recommend 2 Set Violin’s YouTube productions where they review the latest prodigies performing the violin repertoire.

  3. Well, this music is not representative of the best music today. My latest discovery: Snarky Puppy; check out the live recording of Lingus on YT. Sublime. Try just a little and you’ll find some good music.

    And there was plenty of excellent music in the 80’s and 90’s. Then there’s Radiohead.

    While I would say the 70’s are my favorite period, music did progress.

    For a great profile of the top 10 on Spotify, and the shortcomings of most of this music from someone who produced it and knows music theory, check out rick Beato’s YT channel, and especially this episode: “spotify to `0… WTF??”

    There are a couple glimmers of hope.

    1. Just to be clear – Beato dug some parts of these – the melody of the last one, or the real-but-copy-paste guitar part.

    2. Well, the approach of listening to the top 10 on some well-known chart sure beats the heck out of cherry-picking some songs that irritate the critic. At least if you want to know “where modern music is going”.

    3. I was just going to post a link to that video. I felt Rick was incredibly charitable. It all sounded dreadful to me. Every vocal had the annoying and ubiquitous distortion added. Very few instruments actually discernible in the mush. I think one song had something that might be termed a melody.

  4. I never heard of “supertonic.” I assume that’s the ninth. If so, then no – the Miles used the ninth all the time. Someone could tally it and it’d be a very large number.

    If it means overused *in the melody*, then again I’d have to say “no”, because great melodies must use it too – I’d have to look.

    I think the issue would be not enough of [1] the other upper extensions, or [2] chord tones, to give structure, direction, or some sort of story telling to the melody. In that way, loads of top hits on Spotify would sound the same.

      1. You can call him “the”; Miles was one of a kind. He (and collaborator Gil Evans) made the transition from chord progressions to modes and scales on his chef-d’oeuvre album, Kind of Blue.

        1. It was pianist Bill Evans who collaborated with Miles on Kind of Blue. Gil Evans was the arranger who collaborated with Miles on some of his other great 1950s albums, like Miles Ahead and his recording of Gershwin’s opera Porgy and Bess.

    1. Wailing on one note brings to mind Jobim’s One Note Samba. It will be interesting to see what degrees it hits on all those chords.

  5. Well, thank you! Now I know why I don’t care for this kind of music! It’s not something I want to listen to, but it’s what gets played at Jazzercise.

    I thought I didn’t like it because I’m an old geezer, but apparently I’m not alone.

    I like this music:

    Uhhh, wait…this isn’t rock music. There are lots of people who would consider this boring and not worth listening to.

    Oh well…

  6. An interesting video, and I agree with PCC(E) about the decline in musical standards of late. But as Andrew Huang hinted in his analysis, you could do a similar takedown of the repeated use of the same chord progressions in a lot of blues and rock songs to pretty much the same comedic effect.

    1. But the melody makes a great difference, not to mention the feel the performer gives – another element lacking – or at least monotonous – in lots of modern popular music.

      Examples are expressing tons of attitude in a minimum of vocalizations.

      1. Yeah. The thing that makes me shout at my poor radio when driving with the wife (who insists on playing mainstream pop) is all the minimalist music and super-angsty emotion. All gaspy and breathy over who gives a crap. The sheer simplicity being b/c these ‘artists’ don’t appear to know what they are doing.

        Pop over to a station that plays music from the 70’s and early 80s that barely made it on the charts, even, and the abrupt change in quality is apparent. The leading artists of today can’t even match the bench-warmers from a few decades ago.
        I generalize, but it is still true enough.

  7. I agree Huang’s examples do sound turgid and horrible, enhanced by having tuned everything to a D. It’s true that a certain corner of music sounds like this, but it isn’t representative. And as said before, you could say the same about the omnipresent blues standard and doop whoop doop lyrics with the same old trite love confession or being under the spell of some woman etcetera.

    Meanwhile in actual rock, microtonal, indian sounding schenanigans included (released a fee days ago):

  8. In my opinion the overuse of the second is not the only reason this music sounds boring. The quantization of rhythms is also one of the worst things they do to pop now. Even when they have a real drummer playing they edit the track to put every beat right on the count, thus removing all feeling.

    Someone earlier mentioned that the ninth (the same note as the second) is used extensively in jazz, but really this depends on context, in order to really be a ninth the harmony must contain a seventh (major or minor), which gives you rich sounding intervals.

  9. If I had one shot at showing pop music can still reach great places it’d be Jacob Collier’s recent All I Need :

    Collier sings with Mahalia and Ty Dolla $ign on that. And that recording showcases pop sounds and performers, and it is refreshing.

    I would add that Collier has developed his own sound at a very young age – a rare achievement.

  10. Nightwish Greatest show on Earth, based of Richard Dawkins book and has recitations in it from him. Song is about the evolution of the Earth and the life on it and how we will all come to pass.

  11. The only current popular artist that has really made me happy or inspired or touched me is Natalia Lafourcade. She’s Mexican and (thus) all her work is a blend of entirely mad creativity, raw talent, heartfelt emotion, and humour.

    Here’s a fairly recent mega-hit in Latin America–

    She does a great variety of styles, like this old jazz standard — <a href="
    text“>Un Pato, where she sensibly appears in the form of a duck.

    She rose to fame in her early 20s in 2002, with this great weird rap/song/poem En el 2000, complete with entirely mad film clip.

    And if anyone is fluent in Spanish, maybe they can tell me whether this song is as powerful in Spanish as the google translation makes it out to be.

    1. Regarding : “Dercho de Nacimiento” I haven’t seen the Google translation but I can confirm that the song is very moving in Spanish… Thank you for introducing her to me…

  12. I’ve been on a real bluegrass bender for the last few years. I don’t mind contemporary music, I like scrolling the radio while I commute. But bluegrass is something else. I love it not only for the sheer magnitude of songs about natural features (rocks, trees, rivers, mountains, canyons, mountains, etc.), the american history stories, the love of trains and specific states, but when it comes to a heartbreak song, I don’t think any other genre can compare.
    See Darrel Webb’s Close the Door Lightly When You Go
    Flatt Lonesome’s I’d Miss you
    Special Consensus’ Sea of Heartbreak.
    Good stuff.

  13. I think it was Steve Martin that said arguing about music is like dancing about architecture. I try to differentiate between good/bad and like/dislike when considering contemporary pop or rock. The truth is most contemporary artists aren’t singing to me.

    That said…….

    What concerns me is the homogenization of style and the concentration of influence in just a handful of songwriters and producers. While I would love to have his resume, Max Martin is not good for music, in my opinion.

    I have long argued that music is a language, and the best music is a compelling conversation among the musicians. All of the wonderful tools digital recording has offered us has given so much control to the producer that the conversation is lost, and what we are left with is the musical equivalent of a ransom note made with cut out letters. Very precisely cut, and very carefully chosen, but there is a humanity missing.

    With Covid-19 destroying live music in any scale for the foreseeable future, the only way new music is going to be developed is in the equivalent of a lab. Labs are sterile. I like my music a little bit dirty, and hopefully infectious.

    I have a friend that runs a small music school. His students play some of my favorite live music. Thy tweens and teens, in their first attempts at performing, never fail to knock me out. Nobody tries harder, and their commitment to the performance is absolute. It doesn’t matter what tune they play. The only thing better than a great rock show, is the next rock show.



    1. Indeed. I suggest an edible metaphor. Most people prefer eating artisan baked loaves of bread to mass produced sliced, wrapped, bread.

      But mass produced bread is cheap and easy to make with machines once they have been set up. Plus a few pennies profit on a mass produced loaf sold in millions per day is more commercially rewarding that a profit of tens of pennies on 100 loaves baked that day.

      So… modern pop music is the equivalent of mass produced sliced, wrapped, bread.

      1. The bread comparison is a very good one. Years ago my friends, some musicians other just lovers of music, came up with only two types of music, that which is written and that which is built.

        The former could be rock, jazz, electronic, classical or anything, the only criteria is that it was composed with the intention to be original or at least adding a new perspective or style to an existing work so ss to make it new. Try listening to the Easy Star Allstars reggae version of Dark Side of the Moon for a decent example of this.

        Music that is built is just formulaic, following what is the current successful noise/trend. It requires little in the way of thought or compositional ability and is cheap to produce. I would suggest that more effort is put into the accompanying video than the song as the video seems to be the major selling point.

        Bohemian Rhapsody was one of the first hits to use a video and it was good but the song would have stood out as good without a video, I wonder how many modern pop artists could survive without video.

  14. How have market forces contributed to the demise of music? To succeed on the radio for example, my guess is that your piece needs to be loud and have little complexity so that listeners don’t switch within a few seconds. And while concert pianists have only recently stopped wearing tails, popstars can multiply their earnings by creating pseudo-relationships with their fans and an extravagant lifestyle that keeps them in the headlines.

  15. Just want to promote Josh Turner, such a breath of fresh air! He has talent, taste and a sense of humor – have a look at his channel.

  16. So once again I’m late to the party (sorry, I was listening to “Let’s Rock” (2019)). I grew up on rock, and I search out contemporary rock. It exists. There are real bands out there with guitars & drums. The report of its death was an exaggeration.

  17. Goodness- that’s such a great analysis! I thought all the music today was garbage b/c of autotune alone – the most obnoxious device ever invented and a cover for a bunch of talentless people to pretend to be musicians. (take your pick).

    If I hear an autotune again I’m going to rip the speaker out of the diner/deli/elevator /airport.

    But this guy has a better, extra explanation as to why I can’t go to diners, delis, elevators or airports anymore!

    HAHAHAHA And his keyboard IS indeed fantastic.

    D.A. NYC

  18. I am semi-living in the past too about popular music. But I’ve managed to find modern stuff that I like. But most don’t appear on the radio.

    Young the Giant: Strings.
    Embrace: Nature’s Law (that one gets to me).
    Peace: California Daze
    Train: Bruises (one of many terrific little country music songs).
    Lindi Ortega: Cigarettes and truckstops (another great bit of country).
    Temples: Shelter song (I like Temples’ very old sound)
    Andrew Combs (Foolin’ & Nothing to lose) Country again, what the heck??
    Beach House: Myth
    The Black Keys: Fever
    4 Non Blondes: What’s up? (hear on the radio at times)
    The Killers: All these things Ive done. Also on the radio at times.
    Family of the Year: Hero. I love the sound of this one.
    James Bay: Pink lemonade

    Well, I will just link to this one. The artist known as LP is extraordinary, imo.

  19. Awesome video (yes, I commented before viewing)

    That’s an excellent point about how the “supertonic”* clashes with any chords built outside the scale, like a sub dominant – plus, the “supertonic”* is the only scale degree that combines to form regular sounding chords with every other degree. I’ll have to look into that but sounds good to me (pun… never mind).

    *super means above, so above the tonic, or root – 8+1=9, so ninth. So the chords can shift around in these examples but overall stay in the scale built from the tonic.

    BTW that Collier tune is undoubtedly to appeal to audiences of the monotonous stuff – perhaps he wrote it but it hopefully turns the audience on.

    You know what though – I can’t bring myself to say these examples truly suck overall. I actually like the Timberlake number – and actually that one has some nice changes in it. But they aren’t gorgeous melodies that really express anything from the heart.

  20. Since people are posting tunes by contemporary musicians, let me put up the one below. It’s one of the best original soul tunes I’ve heard in recent years — by a folk group no less, three white kids who go by the name “Loves It,” playing acoustical instruments.

    First time I heard it, in a studio at the local NPR station, I thought for sure it was a cover of a Sam Cooke tune I’d somehow overlooked all these years. It’s actually an original tune, written by the woman who sings it, but written in homage to the Sam Cooke style:

      1. In my experience, Radiohead seems come up most often in discussions of bands post 1990 that compare to the Beatles. I recall a survey a couple years ago of young people (I think < 25 yrs) who were roughly split as to which band they thought were greater. I think it was Rolling Stone, and those surveyed actually knew the canons of both bands. I'm 59, and grew up on the Beatles, so in some absolute sense that I go with them. But in fact I listen to Radiohead 10x as much, and they continue to make fantastic music. As for 60's era bands, I listen to the Who far more often than the Beatles. The good news is diving into what's on YT and following commenters with similar taste I've found great music I was never aware of, across decades from 50's to present.

      2. I would certainly put John Darnielle of The Mountain Goats up with any of the great singer/songwriters of the late 60s-70s. However its a bit apples and oranges in that they all came out of a folk tradition whereas The Mountain Goats came to a folksy sound via a different route. Try “Palmcorder Yajna” or “This Year” or “Hast Thou Considered the Tetrapod”

  21. Steely Dan often used the ninth in many of their songs, often enough they made up (or adapted) a name for it — the mu chord. I think it’s usually a triad plus ninth (aka second or supertonic) in SD’s music as opposed to a traditional 9th chord in jazz, which adds the second to a (four note) seventh chord.

    1. Close. The mu chords are more like slash chords: the 2nd is used in the guitar bass note of the chord. “Pretzel Logic” and “Josie” have a lot of good examples.

  22. A *must watch* from Rick Beato, just out …

    “Why Boomers hate pop music”

    He was born 1962.

    Incredibly informative and insightful.

  23. The author uses the term “supertonic”.

    This means the second degree in the eight note scale. This note is also repeated eight notes higher as an “upper extension” and is termed the ninth.

    The note is also understood, as from the Sound of Music, as “re”.

  24. I sent this to a friend. His email response:

    “The big problem with this observation is that almost none of these examples are of rock music. This is all commercial pop music. Coyne is still stuck in the 70s. While I agree that music from that era tends to be way more sophisticated and complex (anything by Burt Bacharach, ELO, Billy Joel (check out the chords and structure of ‘Just the Way You Are’), to say nothing of Steely Dan, Rush, etc. Endless examples of music of incredible complexity and beauty from that era.

    “But Coyne never gives examples of good yet complex original music from today: Radiohead, Andrew Bird, The Decemberists, Elliott Smith, Aimee Mann (she’s a throwback to the 70s but still.) The Shins, Vampire Weekend, Travis, etc. I could go on and on. Good songcraft lives and thrives, it’s just not on commercial radio.”

    1. “Good songcraft lives and thrives, it’s just not on commercial radio.”

      That’s true – but I think it matters that “commercial radio” or Spotify or whatever tells us something about what is most interesting to audiences.

      The audience is another factor I’ve been thinking about. Perhaps the Beatles’ audience has grown somehow, and have found other things… while the *young* audiences don’t want old stuff… I certainly outgrew some sounds, and found other things … I drifted between audiences…

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