October 7, 2013

Harmonizing vocals and falling inequality

The main driver of social-cultural trends is the trend in the crime rate, which is closely related to how cocooning vs. socially connected people are. They get at what's going on at the grassroots, face-to-face level. Then there's a separate, political-economic cycle that applies to our relationships that are more aggregate and mediated by institutions.

Most people don't know what the political-economic cycle looks like, so here is a handy and informative article by Peter Turchin, who's doing the most to synthesize the dynamics of the phenomena in each of the different domains (such as inequality, over-production of elites, intra-elite competition, debt, and so on). Inequality is the easiest to understand of all the proxies, and it has much better data over time. It began growing around 1820 in America and only peaked around 1910-1920, after which it fell through a trough sometime in the '70s, and has been rising again ever since.

I haven't referred to it too much because my main focus is on social relations and culture, and those turning points don't appear to slice up social-cultural history into coherent periods. For example, the Roaring Twenties (and early '30s, the end of the Jazz Age) would go with the slow-paced, atomized '40s and '50s, as well as the more exciting '60s and '70s. And then the '80s would go with the '90s and 21st century, whereas the movies, popular music, design, etc., would split them off from the past 20 or so years.

But there are aspects of culture where it's easy to see competitiveness -- or a taboo against competitiveness. And sure enough, those seem to map onto the inequality cycle, with greater signs of competitiveness when inequality is widening. An earlier post looked at the rise of facial hair as a form of status jockeying among aspiring elite males, and its disappearance as a sign of the decline of such status contests, going back from the early 1800s to the present.

Here's another one -- close harmony in pop music vocals. This is where multiple voices harmonize (duh), but where the notes are closer together in pitch, rather than spread farther apart. Often in pop music there isn't any vocal harmony at all, just one voice singing. With close harmony, not only do you hear several voices working together, they're all fairly similar in pitch, so they don't sound too, too distinctive from one another.

What pop music groups exemplify this technique?

[T]he Beach Boys, the Hollies, Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young, the Bee Gees, the Andrews Sisters, the Boswell Sisters, the Original Clark Sisters, the Louvin Brothers, the Revelers, the Lennon Sisters, the Comedian Harmonists, the Mills Brothers, the Everly Brothers, the Eagles, the Pied Pipers, the Three X Sisters, the Chordettes, the McGuire Sisters, the Lescano Trio, the Viennese Singing Sisters and modern groups such as The Puppini Sisters [who no one's ever heard of]. . . . Many gospel and soul groups in the 1950s and 60s also used this technique. . . . The folk-rock duo Simon & Garfunkel used close harmony, echoing their chosen role-models, the Everly Brothers. The Louvin Brothers were a duo that used close harmony in the genre of country music. . . . doo-wop can be seen as a commercialization of this genre.

So it got started during the 1920s or early '30s at the latest, reached a peak during the '50s and '60s, held on somewhat into the '70s, but has been heard increasingly less since then. Note how different all of those groups sound. Those bird's-eye differences are what track the crime rate. But throughout the whole period, there was a drive to use heavy vocal harmonies that weren't too far apart in pitch. Here's a quick overview of some hits with heavy harmonies, spanning all sorts of stylistic genres.

"Heebie Jeebies" by the Boswell Sisters (1932), Jazz Age jazz (harmonies begin at 1:00)

"Boogie Woogie Bugle Boy" by the Andrews Sisters (1941), swing era

"Mr. Sandman" by the Chordettes (1954), pop

"Sugartime" by the McGuire Sisters (1958), pop

"Cathy's Clown" by the Everly Brothers (1960), pop

"Barbara Ann" by the Beach Boys (1965), rock

"The Sounds of Silence" by Simon & Garfunkel (1964-65), folk rock

"Stayin' Alive" by the Bee Gees (1977), disco

"Your Love" by The Outfield (1985), pop rock

"Hold On" by Wilson Phillips (1990), pop

It looks like the falling-crime periods feature more women in the role, while men come to the foreground during rising-crime times. Rising crime selects for more showy displays -- not competitive, just colorful, loud, expressive, and so on. Men are naturally more expressive than women, especially as performers before an audience, so the major harmonizers from the '60s, '70s and '80s are predominantly male, compared to the more subdued and similar-sounding female voices from the mid-century.

Men also want to carve out a little more of an individual niche for themselves in a group, as opposed to the blanket conformity of girl groups, so their voices are more distinctive. You can hear the differences more among the Beach Boys than the Chordettes.

As the '70s wore on, close harmonies are rarer and not as prominent within a song that does use them, like the hits by the Bee Gees. By the time you get to "Your Love," there's a very clear lead singer. Here you can see the rising inequality trend beginning to eat away at the band-of-equals vocal technique of just a few decades earlier. These days you don't really hear it at all.

Fun fact: the performers of "Hold On" are two daughters of a Beach Boy and a daughter of two bandmates from the Mamas & the Papas. Harmonizing runs in the family, but can only earn them success if the larger culture is interested in that sound. There are probably a few other minor girl groups from the '90s who did close harmony, but Wilson Phillips were the last to make an impression.

I haven't bothered to go into much detail about why more and closer harmonies tend to go with rising egalitarianism, and vice versa, since it's straightforward. It provides a nice test of the idea there's some causal link, as we see cause-and-effect better in a look over time. Comparing groups at the same point in time yields something similar, though.

Girls prefer less hierarchy in social relations, and sure enough, they are more likely to harmonize rather than have each member stand out in their own way.

I don't know much ethnomusicology, but my impression is that harmonies are more common in the folk music of less hierarchical societies. For example, many groups in Central and Eastern Asia have some form of overtone singing ("throat singing") which emphasizes harmony. However, this seems to be found mostly among the pastoralist and hunter-gatherer groups there, not the large sedentary agricultural societies. And that's regardless of their ethno-cultural-linguistic group -- it's big among the Mongolians, Tibetans, and Tuvans, but not so much among the Han, Koreans, and Japanese, who employ more florid individual-focused voices. Also notice how given Celts are to harmonizing, compared to Anglo-Saxons.

At any rate, I'll keep my eyes peeled for other things like this that track inequality instead of crime. It's not easy to find something that links the '20s through the '60s or '70s, and splits that whole chunk off from the '80s through today. If something else strikes your attention, let us know.


  1. I dunno, but one thing I was thinking about are the incredible technological advances that happened 1900-1930(high crime, low inequality). Maybe we have that to look forward to - reverse aging drugs, etc.


  2. What techno advances happened the last 20 years? let's see, the iphone. and a bunch of war technology associated with the period right after 9/11.

    Compare that to the advent of flight, automobiles, mass production, radio, and a ton of other stuff I can't think of, from 1900-1930.


  3. I just saw a post by Steve Sailer on cheating.

    Do people cheat more in periods of cocooning + rising inequality?

  4. Beats me. The last such period was the Gilded Age / Victorian era, and I don't know much about their educational culture.

    We could check to see if cheating scandals were already rising during the later part of the '70s and '80s, which would implicate only intra-elite competition. I don't see how it would relate to cocooning.

  5. Probably correlates most with inequality - since in times of equality, people try to get along with each other.


  6. Aren't people less likely to cheat if they have more social ties and if they are part of a community?

  7. 1984 - Billy Joel - "For the Longest Time." He sings all the parts himself.

    1975 - "Dance with Me" - Orleans


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