We measured pop music’s falsetto obsession


This is a chart that has never been seen before. This one hasn’t either nor has this one. None of these have. That because I made them, along with Matt
here. My name is Matt Daniels and I’m a journalist
at the Pudding, which is a publication for visually led storytelling. Well, mainly Matt made them, I just sent him
a bunch of emails. These charts are the result of a year long
obsession I’ve had over a very specific trend I’ve noticed in music. Men singing really high. When I listen to the radio, I’ve come to
expect one thing. Male pop stars exploiting their upper register. Bruno Mars, The Weekend, Shawn Mendes, Charlie
Puth, Justin Bieber, Justin Timberlake, Adam Lavine, the Jonas Brothers, Ed Sheeran, Khalid,
Childish Gambino, Frank Ocean, all of One Direction, BTS, Chris Martin, One Republic,
and Sam Smith. I’m not the first person to pick up on this. In 2015 alone it seemed every guy was singing
high. There was Jason Derulo “Just the thought of you, gets me so high
(so high)” Maroon 5 “I’m right here, cause I need a little
love a little sympathy” And Justin Bieber “Yeah, I know that I let you down
Is it too late to say I’m sorry now?” But maybe this fact is best illustrated by
this 10 week period on the Billboard Charts. When The Weekend battled for the top spot
against Justin Bieber “And I know she’ll be the death of me” “What do you mean?” And then Himself “I only call you when it’s half past five” until finally his Michael Jackson inspired
voice was was dethroned by Adele’s “Hello.” “Hello, It’s Me” Really the only way to know if this hypothesis
holds up, though, is to crunch the numbers and quantify it. And that’s where Matt came in. It kind of fits a really good mold of the
questions that I really like, where we have a cultural question about vocal ranges and
usage of falsetto and music and there is no perfect data set for that. We wanted to make a chart that showed how
prevalent the male falsetto was in pop music, not just in the last 5 years, but as far back
as we could go. That meant looking at music streaming services. Every streaming platform tags the millions
of songs in their respective libraries with metadata, but each one does it a little differently. For example, Spotify has over 35 millions
songs in their library, but their metadata is algorithmically driven and pretty broad. Matt: some of it was around the tempo of music
and how danceable it was or its somber or positive tone. Pandora, on the other hand has a smaller library,
but they are committed to very specific data. In their case it wasn’t algorithmically
driven. They were actually having humans review songs
and say what its DNA, or what its genome was. The result is a library of 2 million songs
with up to 450 individual identifying markers. So that was interesting to me because falsetto
and vocal range, while could be determined by a computer, often lends itself to the human
ear because there is some subjectivity to it. So, we asked Pandora if they had vocal data. They did. And they shared it with us. So do you actually have available the original
dataset that we received? Oh yeah yeah I can. Should I just bring that up? It’s forty two thousand rows. The first entry is by George P. Watson from
1911 He was a Yodeler. One hundred and eight years later and 42,948
rows down we have the iconic high voice of Thom Yorke. Sudden words We’ll get to exactly how these are scored
in a bit, but damn that’s a lot of songs. So what we said was “OK this is great to
see these forty three thousand songs but really we only care about songs that charted.” So we created a data set of the Billboard
Hot 100, a 28,000 song list of the 100 most popular songs in the US every week since 1958. and we went back to Pandora. And said we only really want the falsetto
data for these songs, and not only do we want the falsetto data, but we also
need data about the register. And a few other important things, like the
gender of the person singing. It’s not just a matter of like putting
into their system and it spits out the falsetto data. We need to match the names of the songs and
the artists names to whatever Pandora has. Wait. So you have to do that manually? We write fancy programs to guess that there’s
a match and confirm that there’s a match. So with Matt’s fancy program we matched
20,075 songs. So the biggest gap in the data is actually
the missing songs that aren’t on streaming services, but were on the Billboard Hot 100
and did have very valid falsetto data behind them. So in 1958 we have data for 50% of the songs
that charted. In 2018 we have data for 95% of the songs
that charted. The good thing though is, you think of an
average number one hit from 1958 – that’s more likely to appear on Pandora than a song
that hit number 100 for one week. When I first sat down with this giant spreadsheet,
I immediately wanted to see how songs that I thought had a lot of falsetto had actually
been scored. The first song that I looked for was Childish
Gambino’s “Redbone.” “If you want it, you can have it, ohhhhhh” His voice is super high and very memorable. Not only that, a lot of articles about this
song mentioned it had a lot of falsetto. To my astonishment, Pandora determined there
was no falsetto in the song, instead they said it was just sung in a high register This trend was most stark in the hard rock
and heavy metal genres. Def Leppard’s “Rock of Ages” had a falsetto
score of zero but register score of 9 out of 10. I don’t care if it takes all night
I gonna set this town alight, come on Knowing this, let’s define what falsetto
and vocal register actually are. To do that I’ve brought in an actual opera
singer. Hi I’m Anthony Roth Costanzo and I’m a countertenor
and opera singer. Prove it. Perfect, let’s talk about vocal range first. The voices starting from the bottom in the
classical tradition are bass, baritone, tenor, contralto, countertenor, mezzo soprano, Soprano. Countertenor is kind of a catch all term and
it’s a range that goes up and down. Most male pop stars today are tenors. That means their average range is somewhere
between here and here. Pandora’s data scores vocal register – which
measures a singers ability to go up and down their range consistently. A super high register Pandora rates songs from 0-10 from low to
high. “Rock of Ages” ranked super high with
a 9 – Pharrell’s voice in “Get Lucky” was
given an 8 “I’m up all night to get some, she’s
up all night for good fun, I’m up all night to get lucky” As was Elton John in “Crocodile Rock” “I never knew me a better time and I guess
I never will” So I think it’s safe to say that between a
7 and 8 is pretty high on the vocal register range. But it’s not crazy. So when these artists want to access even
higher notes they’ll likely switch to their falsetto register. Falsetto is an Italian word which means “false
little voice.” Falsetto is typically a technique ascribed
to a male singer that switches from their chest voice to their head voice. Whenever you’re going from chest voice – meaning
the speaking register – to head voice, there’s often a little break because there are two
different sets of muscles handing off to each other, and that’s how you yodel right. [demonstrates yodeling] And that’s what yodeling
is. George, you’re back! It’s not just Yodeling. It happens in pop all the time, though that
transition is often more invisible. Notice how Freddie Mercury goes from his chest
voice to falsetto when he says the word “decline” “A built-in remedy
For Kruschev and Kennedy At anytime an invitation
You can’t decline” Okay so let me just pause for a second and
say that “falsetto,” as a term, has been around forever, but its definition has changed and
evolved. Many vocal coaches would say that falsetto
is that breathy, light sound you heard from Freddie Mercury. And they say the generic term “head voice”
should describe crisper, reinforced high notes. A perfect example of that is from this 90s
classic. “I knew I loved you before I met you. I knew I loved you.” That’s amazing. I mean you know that’s like a really well
integrated instrument. For your average music listener, aka me, the
technical distinction between head voice and falsetto is less important than the fact that
they both just sound impossibly high. That brings us again to the scoring system. A 10 on the Pandora scale is a song that’s
sung entirely in Falsetto “Staying alive” That’s pretty extreme, and according to our data set, it’s also pretty
rare. So here’s the tricky determination I’ve
got to make. What falsetto score is enough to really define
a song. I think a good place to start is a song literally
called “Falsetto” “Now I got her talking like this, in a falsetto. She’s like oooh oooh baby ahh ah ah” Pandora gave this song a 6 – in their ears,
The-Dream only used the technique moderately. This is where I could split hairs all day. Because while, yeah, The-Dream doesn’t use
a falsetto the whole time, the technique plays does play a central role in the track. The hook of the song, the most memorable part,
is sung in falsetto. Justin Timberlake’s “Cry Me A River”
also got a 6. “Cry me a river (go on and just)
Cry me a river (go on and just) Cry me a river (baby, go on and just)” So, I’m going to look at songs with a falsetto
above a 5 If there’s one thing I can’t stress enough,
it’s that this data can be addressed in a 1,000 different ways. To keep things simple, though we’ve separated
falsetto and vocal register as two separate data points. I think this is probably the first chart I
made that just was super simple and just said all right “What is the average value of
all the songs that charted in a year.” First let’s focus on vocal register. I was not expecting to see this just a very
clear like march to the top in the late 80s The average vocal register for male singer
in 1988 was a 7.1. But as you can see across any time period,
that average never really dropped below 5.4. Because there were so many songs in 1988 that
had a register of 7 or higher, we’re going to make this a little bit tougher. I’m going to boost the register to an 8
and only allow songs that made it in the top 10. We’ve got a strong hard rock and heavy metal
showing. “She’s got a smile it seems to me” There’s my man Phil Collins “I’m always right there beside her
We’re two hearts” I’ve literally never heard this song “I can rocket 2 u” Okay, wow. If we push the Falsetto score up to a 6, we’re
left with just two songs from 1988. “Smooth Criminal”
“He came into her apartment He left the bloodstains on the carpet” and “Nite and Day” by Al B Sure! “I can tell you how I feel about you night
and day” With Nite and Day just barely edging out to
win. The 1980s blew a high male vocal register
out of the water. So let’s see how this chart changes when
we just focus on falsetto. Things start to shift going back from the
1980s to the 1970s – the disco era. 1975 was the highest year for falsetto. Where 18% of songs had a value over 4. It also serves as a turning point for the
Bee Gees. This might be surprising to hear, but before
1975 the Bee Gees’s average falsetto was around 0.8. After 1975 it rose to a 5.5. And that makes sense. They had to compete with the likes of Earth,
Wind, and Fire, Ohio Players, Eddie Kendricks, Curtis Mayfield – all artists whose careers
were defined by their high voices. I can imagine a record executive in a room
listening to a song and they’re like “Yeah that’s great but you should put some falsetto
in there somewhere” It wasn’t until 1976 that their now trademark
falsetto hit number one. “You should be dancing, yeah” Looking back at both of these charts, it’s
obvious something shifted after the 1980s. The thing that changed after the 80s is you
have hip hop becoming massively popular. And today it’s the most popular genre. If you look at the average song there just
isn’t as many opportunities for for a falsetto because there’s just less singing. So how do we account for that? So I created this toggle that basically said
is there singing in this song which is also from the Pandora data, they basically have
a spoken variable. So first let’s see what happens when we
toggle the singing function for songs in the top 10. 1996 and 2015 really shoot up. Let’s focus on 1996 first. This was the year Neo-Seoul went mainstream. Artists like D’Angelo and Maxwell led the
charge. Their voices were a modern twist on the soul
artists of the 1970s. I mean just listen to D’Angelo next to Curtis
Mayfield. “When I first saw you baby
I wanted to die Me and those dreamin’ eyes of mine” “So In Love, every time we kiss” 2
1996 was a huge year for Falsetto, but so was 2015. And here are maybe your your your ears hearing
the right thing, relative to other years, 2015 was the year of high voices. Regardless of which toggle we select or which
combination of falsetto and register we choose, we did find this: if a song has falsetto,
whether it’s a 1 or a 10, it’s going to chart higher — and longer. This is true across nearly every year. Not only that, Top 10 Hits are more likely
to use falsetto. Take a look at that huge spike in 2015. 66% of songs that peaked in the top 10 had
falsetto. Regardless of the decade, high male voices
are iconic. From the Frankie Vallie belting Sherry “Sherry baby” To the 70s swagger of Bloodstone’s “Natural
High” “I’m trying to make something out of nothing
And I don’t even know you” To the Weeknd’s hazy R&B “None of these toys on lease too, ah
Made your whole year in a week too, yah” It feels like today is very good for the commercial
viability of the high male voice. And I think that’s true if the window of time is the millennials’ lifetime. But if you were to talk to your parents or
your parents parents they’d be like Oh you think today is good. In nineteen seventy five it’s not even comparable. The reason why it might feel like a trend
today is because this is all we’ve ever known.

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