"Hip hop is the single most important event that has shaped the musical structure of the American charts over the past 50 years."

That's the verdict of scientists led by Matthias Mauch, a computer scientist at the Queen Mary University of London published in Royal Society Open Science, the national academy of science in the UK.

They analysed data from the U.S. charts (the Billboard Hot 100) to see how music has evolved over the decades and detected several major shifts.

It turns out the behaviour of these shifts was sudden rather than gradual, as might have been expected and included: rock 'n' roll and soul in 1964; disco, new wave, and hard rock in 1983; and the most recent was in 1991 when rap and hip hop burst onto the scene.

Computer algorithms were used to compare the rhythm, melody and harmony of 17,000 tracks between 1960 and 2010 which showed hip hop has had by far the greatest impact on the U.S. chart music that followed. The genre influences a large percentage of pop music - the most extreme example being nu-metal bands like Limp Bizkit which include rapping and DJ scratching.

Interestingly, the method of research was similar to that used by scientists tracking the development of biological species, since a popular theory is that the evolution of music shares behavioural traits with the evolution of organisms.

In his excellent article in News from Science John Bohannon paraphrases Jean-Baptiste Michel, a data scientist at Harvard University: "Pop music shows a pattern from biological evolution known as punctuated equilibrium, in which periods of gradual change are separated by explosions of complexity.

"The most famous example in geological history is the Cambrian explosion, a sudden, massive increase in biodiversity in the fossil record 542 million years ago."

Do these findings, therefore, say something profound about the importance of music to life itself?