Over the past half-century, pop hits have become longer, slower and sadder, and they increasingly convey “mixed emotional cues,” according to a study just published in the journal Psychology of Aesthetics, Creativity and the Arts.
“As the lyrics of popular music became more self-focused and negative over time, the music itself became sadder-sounding and more emotionally ambiguous,” according to psychologist E. Glenn Schellenberg and sociologist Christian von Scheve.
Analyzing Top 40 hits from the mid-1960s through the first decade of the 2000s, they find an increasing percentage of pop songs are written using minor modes, which most listeners—including children—associate with gloom and despair. In what may or may not be a coincidence, they also found the percentage of female artists at the top of the charts rose steadily through the 1990s before retreating a bit in the 2000s.
…Strikingly, they found “the proportion of minor songs doubled over five decades.” In the second half of the 1960s, 85 percent of songs that made it to the top of the pop charts were written in a major mode. By the second half of the 2000s, that figure was down to 43.5 percent.
In addition, the songs’ average tempo has decreased over the decades, although this measure is a bit more complicated. “In absolute terms, the slowest-tempo recordings were from the 1990s,” they note, “which suggests that the trend may have leveled out, or started to reverse direction.”
The researchers found this slowdown was more pronounced for major-mode (that is, joyful) songs. This points to “a general reduction in unambiguously happy-sounding recordings,” they write, “as well as an increase in recordings with ambiguous emotional states.”
By the way, the Turtles song “Happy Together” is mostly in a minor key. There is more here, and for the pointer I thank Janice and also Brad Plumer.