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There's a 'volume war' happening in music

Beck says track and the rhythm, not vocals, need to be at the forefront if you want to move people.
Matt Winkelmeyer
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Beck says track and the rhythm, not vocals, need to be at the forefront if you want to move people.

Lead vocalists have gotten quieter over the decades, compared with the rest of the band, according to a new study. A leading industry figure says it's part of the "volume wars."

Who is he? A multi-instrumentalist, Grammy winner and Beyoncé usurper, Beck is one of the biggest names in alternative rock.

  • Awards aside, he's also one of the subjects of a German study that has observed a shift in how modern music is mixed, and how vocalists aren't as much in the foreground of the mix as they once were. 
  • According to acoustic scientists at the University of Oldenburg in Germany, lead singers have been getting quieter over the years – in some genres more than others. 
  • What's the big deal? As times change, so do our tastes for just about everything. The study was able to find this phenomenon across the board of musical stylings and flairs.

  • Kai Siedenburg and his colleague analyzed the four highest ranked songs on the Billboard Hot 100 chart between 1946 and 2020, along with top songs in the country, rap, pop, rock, and heavy metal genres. When they compared the loudness of singers to everything else — guitars, drums and more — they found that rock and metal had the most drastic shifts in volume.  
  • Interestingly enough, the several Beck songs observed in the study all had his vocals at a similar noise level, or even quieter, than the instruments. He says that result is the product of his own stylistic preferences. 
  • "I came up more in the indie rock genre, alternative music. And the ethos of that time was to really bury the vocal ... You didn't want people to hear what you were saying." 
  • The study featured Beck's 1996 hit "Where It's At" as a prime example of this trend. 
  • What's he saying? Beck spoke with NPR to give his own insight on the volume knob turning down over the years.

    On the power of musical layers:

    The track and the rhythm has to be at the forefront if you want to move people. As soon as you put the vocal up at the forefront, the track loses its energy and its immediacy and it becomes something else, which is why I think it suits jazz or folk.  

    But the minute you do that on a pop song, you kind of lose people in that connection to feel the energy of a track ... It loses a kind of visceral immediacy that people are conditioned to, and it will make the song kind of feel a little dull. 

    On how vocal volume can convey emotion:

    I would say Adele is probably one of the best selling artists of the recent era of music. And I think her vocals are pretty loud. And maybe that's something that people connect to. 

    You can have an emotional connection to something that's just purely electronic, or like a heavy Led Zeppelin rock song where the energy and the power of the guitar riff are really carrying the song. But as far as connecting to what the person is singing, and that sort of emotional presence of a song, you would have to have the vocal louder. And that's probably part of Adele's success.  

    On how external factors have impacted this change:

    There's a lot of volume wars going on as well. Like how loud people can get songs to be impactful. I think vocals have become a casualty of that in the last few decades.  

    So now we're in this kind of arms race of audio and sound and volume to get these tracks louder and louder. So, yeah, now I think we're at a point where, for the most part, it's the beat, a little bit of vocal, and maybe one little element of music in there. You know, this is a long way from the world of [The Beatles'] Sgt. Peppers, where there are orchestras and sitars and a million other sonic colors happening. 

    Want more on culture and the people who create it? Listen to Consider This on the trouble in Hollywood as writers strike.

    So, what now?

  • It seems like our listening habits will only continue to evolve with the times, which could mean that sooner than later, we'll only want to listen to 15 second sped up music clips we've found on TikTok.  
  • And the scientists don't have much guidance for musicians aside from letting them do their thang: "They should just do what they do and generate the music they love."  
  • Learn more:

  • New York Dolls co-founder David Johansen helped pave the way for punk
  • The unstoppable appeal of Peso Pluma and the Regional Mexican music scene
  • iLoveMakonnen and Drake tested rap's norms of masculinity, but only one passed
  • Copyright 2023 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

    Manuela López Restrepo is a producer and writer at All Things Considered. She's been at NPR since graduating from The University of Maryland, and has worked at shows like Morning Edition and It's Been A Minute. She lives in Brooklyn with her cat Martin.