The Loudness Wars

Music has “dynamic range.” It can be loud or quiet. Music that has a lot of variation between loud and soft has a lot of dynamic range. Music that comes at one volume has no dynamic range.

Here’s a classic piece of American classical music with a lot of dynamic range: George Gershwin’s “Rhapsody in Blue.”

Notice how at 1:10, for example, it gets really loud. Then it backs down

Here’s a famous singer from geezer days with a fair amount of dynamic range, Aretha Franklin
Notice how she uses variations in volume to goose the tune along  “together, “toGETHer”  “EEEEVaH!”

And here’s a more modern singer presented with no dynamic range, Katy Perry.
Notice how in the beginning she is singing pensively. The song starts to build. At 46 seconds  the strings come in; at 1:02 or so she comes on full yell. But notice: the song did not get any louder. The whisper and the scream are at exactly the same volume. This isn’t actually possible!

And the thing is, ALL modern pop music is like this. It all comes at you at almost exactly the same volume. Check it out.

The volume never really changes no matter what is going on. In fact, it’s a recognized thing: Wikipedia has a page on it.

So why is this? What’s going on?

What’s going on is compression, also called “loudness maximization” or “slamming.”

For most of the 20th century, music was on shellac or vinyl disks.

The music was inscribed on the disk as physical grooves that fluctuated as the music did.
When the music got louder the grooves got wider. But there was a physical limit to how wide the swing of the grooves could get. If it got too wide either the song would not fit on the record, or the needle would jump out of the groove. If you like vinyl records, a major reason might be that vinyl records have more dynamic range–more difference between the loud and the quiet parts.

In digital media it’s easy to compress a song. Which basically means “make the loud parts really loud, and then make the quiet parts as loud as the loud parts.”
This little clip explains it well

Since about 2000, virtually ALL the music you hear has been loudness maximized, so it has almost no dynamic range at all.

So the question I’d like you to consider is “why?” why is this a central aspect of modern music. Please don’t just say “it sounds better.” The question would be “why does it sound better?”