Is popular music becoming sadder?

by on June 3, 2012 at 3:34 am in Music | Permalink

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.

londenio June 3, 2012 at 4:34 am

The following link explains why Adele is so successful. Apparently, changes in key signal a intense emotional state, which in turns releases dopamine. And we all love dopamine!
http://online.wsj.com/article/SB10001424052970203646004577213010291701378.html
I had always wondered why people enjoy listening to sad songs. Why do people pay money to watch a tearjerker movie? Isn’t happiness what we aspire to? Why then go into the effort of consuming “sad” content?

jeudevoiture June 3, 2012 at 6:45 am

I’m agree whit this study. It’s true that a some more populare song are sad. Why the singer dont whrite happy song? I’m intersested, there is a study who explaine this phenomenous?

axa June 4, 2012 at 1:28 pm

an empirical response from many song writers is that it is that sad songs are easier to write, because even a mediocre one sounds “real”. happy songs have to be really awesome (really scarce) to make the singer “credible”. so, if you are not at the top of creativity/emotion/whatever…..the easy way is just to write a sad song.

Ted Craig June 3, 2012 at 7:28 am

“Happy Together” is actually more of a stalker song than a love song.

Dan Weber June 3, 2012 at 9:08 pm

Most love songs are stalker songs. I’m not even talking about the explicit ones like “Every Breath You Take.”

Valerie Smalkin June 3, 2012 at 9:08 am

As a composer I find it harder to write a happy song than a sad one. Sad ones seem to pour out on their own, happy songs (and I write them mostly for children) require more effort, although, occasionally one does just pop out.

Urso June 4, 2012 at 10:14 am

Your reference to children is, I think, telling. For whatever reason people tend to dismiss happy songs as being juvenile or, in the musical parlance, “bubblegum.” Somehow being sad or, at least, conflicted, has become a signal of emotional maturity. And emotional maturity is a necessary part of being seen as an Artist as opposed to a mere musician, which is crucial these days and was basically unheard of in the early 1960s.

Think of the title of the Stones’ first record — they were explicitly presented as “hitmakers” — no pretense of deep artistic thought there. Fast forward a few years and they’re singing songs like You Can’t Always Get What You Want and Sister Morphine, and they are all of a sudden Real Artists. voila.

figleaf June 3, 2012 at 9:22 am

And if you dropped 1968′s egregiously long, slow, sad McArthur Park the numbers would skew even further.

Hmm. Country western music has always tended to be longer, slower, and more likely to be in minor keys. I wonder how much of the measured effect comes from Nashville’s emergence as a manufacturing center for song writing and the corresponding decline of the once dominant, chirpier, but equally insincere tin pan alley.

figleaf

*daniel June 3, 2012 at 10:04 am

It’s long enough now that I think we should leave aside the association of minor keys and depression or sadness.

That said, I love slow, minor songs. Don’t know why.

moper June 3, 2012 at 10:23 am

The snatches of lyrics of new music I hear, reek of self-pity.
Pure narcissism.

Steven Morrissey June 4, 2012 at 1:53 pm

‘Twas ever thus.

Edward Burke June 3, 2012 at 10:26 am

I chalk it up to the simple confrontation between rock ‘n’ roll and reality. The surviving Stones and Beach Boys are celebrating FIFTY (50) year anniversaries this year; anyone who’s seen Mick Jagger lately knows he’s no geriatric teenager. So it begins to become clear that RNR is no actual rivulet streaming from the Fountain of Youth. Also, with RNR on the verge of its own SIXTIETH (60th) birthday (or just passed: I still assign the birth to Les Paul’s/Mary Ford’s “How High the Moon” from 1951), the view dawns that RNR is NOT “the eternal music of eternal youth” but the popular musical mode of the Baby Boomers and their children, the latter perhaps in a growing funk over their inability to transcend the RNR idiom. (Somehow, I don’t anticipate a fresh rush on Beethoven, Mr. Burgess.) –Thus my working definitions of “rock ‘n’ roll”: “a genre of popular music celebrating adolescent frivolity and excess; amplified hyperbole or cliché of geriatric vintage”.

Jamie June 3, 2012 at 11:12 am

People like me, who grew up on The Smiths, 10,000 Maniacs, The Cure, etc. are now being called The New Class by social conservatives. The rest is left as an exercise for the reader.

The interesting part is when my cohort isn’t 40, but 60. I’m an outlier, not all that wealthy – people only want to appeal to me for my disposable income. But some folks I went to school with are starting to take an interest in politics. I doubt we’ll see a Goth President any time soon, but the angry Koch has reason to think his worldview is losing.

TGGP June 3, 2012 at 2:42 pm

londenio, some decades ago an Englishman commented to his friends on the oddity of a popular Boris Karloff movie. Why were people willing to pay money in order to be scared? Could the same strategy work in music? And thus was born Black Sabbath.

Valerie Smalkin, Jerry Cantrell (closely associated with the early-90s “grunge” period) once said that the reason he doesn’t write many happy songs is that when he’s happy he’s got better things to do than write music.

Jamie, I thought term “New Class” came from Chris Lasch. But maybe he counts as a social conservative.

hanmeng June 3, 2012 at 2:59 pm

Wrinklies dance slower.

Jamie June 3, 2012 at 10:19 pm

TGGP: yes, Chris Lasch was a social conservative.

Jamie June 3, 2012 at 10:27 pm

And the origin story of Black Sabbath is incorrect. They followed the much more quotidian route of most bands, changed names and members, not to mention styles, before hitting on what made them influential, or cliche, depending on how you see it.

TGGP June 6, 2012 at 1:49 am

It’s true they were called Earth before (and now there is a prominent doom metal band named Earth in tribute to them) but switched to avoid confusion with another band. But the claim that they were inspired by the Boris Karloff movie comes from their own liner notes.

adam June 3, 2012 at 10:43 pm

black sabbath’s name is from a boris karlof movie. growing up in birmingham england has alot to do with their sound. tony iommi loosing his fingertips also changed their sound. the quote about horror movies is ozzy on their biography (biography channel).

Jason Malloy June 4, 2012 at 9:31 am

Are movies becoming sadder too? Thinking about just some of the depressing movies from 2011:

Detachment
Shame
We Need to Talk About Kevin
A Separation
Melancholia
Young Adult
Take Shelter
Martha Marcy May Marlene
The Beaver
Another Earth
The Tree of Life
The Turin Horse
Tyrannosaur

This is like the most oppressively doleful crop of movies I’ve seen cluster in one year. Including the saddest, almost shell-shocked, performances I’ve ever seen by actors like Michael Fassbinder, Adrien Brody, Kirsten Dunst, Michael Shannon, Mel Gibson, and Tilda Swinton. Even the blockbuster stuff with more or less resolved endings, like 50/50 and Moneyball, had a melancholy aesthetic.

Jason Malloy June 4, 2012 at 9:36 am

The blog stripped my formatting, so here are some helpful commas:

Detachment, Shame, We Need to Talk About Kevin, A Separation, Melancholia, Young Adult, Take Shelter, Martha Marcy May Marlene, The Beaver, Another Earth, The Tree of Life, The Turin Horse, Tyrannosaur

Pit June 5, 2012 at 2:51 am

The most depressing movie is The Grey

Sam X June 4, 2012 at 1:50 pm

There is additional layers here that are more difficult to pierce. First thing that occurs to me–the Smashing Pumpkins song “Today” can give a casual listener the overwhelming experience of joy. The closing refrain, to wit:

“Today is the greatest
Today is the greatest day
Today is the greatest day
That I have ever really known”

Sounds very cheery, mark that one in the “happy” column–especially if you consider the upbeat and poppy riff associated with it. Except the songwriter, Billy Corgan, has gone on record numerous times explaining that the lyrics are ironic. That he means “today is the greatest day because tomorrow couldn’t possibly be worse.” So do you go with the songwriter’s intention? Do you go with the casual listener’s reading?

Sure most pop music doesn’t play with such dichotomies, but some do, and it’s worth considering.

samsondale June 4, 2012 at 2:45 pm

Are more songs being written in D minor? It is the saddest of all keys.

dirk June 4, 2012 at 4:02 pm

Maybe popular music is becoming sadder because popular music is becoming less popular.

Steven June 5, 2012 at 8:18 am

I don’t get the blues, but I think stadium rock, digital delay, drugs and Free Bird are solid reasons for the slow down. When my band started in 1981, the average speed of our songs was probably around 140 beats per minute, which hid the fact that we sucked. When we signed with our record company in 84, almost everybody said “slow down, mon.” 30 years later, 10,000 Maniacs are still writing and playing new material (major keys), but slower is sexier, and I need all the help I can get.

k June 5, 2012 at 11:22 pm

Someone should clarify, this is American top 40.

So people in the US are lovin’ their misery.

j June 6, 2012 at 11:58 am

Songs are products, we forget. Creators of products need to differentiate those products from what came before, or what’s on market now. So part of the growth in this area must have to do with the notion of being different from previous songs, yes? Maybe?

RPLong June 12, 2012 at 2:41 pm

For what it’s worth, I think songs are becoming more emotionally ambiguous because society is becoming less tolerant of specificity. It’s obvious in politics: anyone who takes a stand is burned at the stake. It’s equally as obvious in social circles: anyone who voices a specific thought or opinion about something gets a reputation for being “judgmental.”

These days, the more ambiguous you are, the better people like what you have to say. Observe MR: Cowen has a much better reputation among the readers than Tabarrok, except for the few of us who are more inclined to specificity and clearly prefer Tabarrok.

In the world of ambiguity, say-nothings like Obamney will be king.

Josh K-sky June 13, 2012 at 2:52 pm

It feels like a lot of songs are written in harmonic minors (i-iv-V) which gives them more of a sultry than a sad feeling. Thinking of “Hit Me Baby One More Time” and others in that sensibility.

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