Pop Songs are Getting Sadder and Angrier

AEON: English-language popular songs have become more negative. The use of words related to negative emotions has increased by more than one third. Let’s take the example of the Billboard dataset. If we assume an average of 300 words per song, every year there are 30,000 words in the lyrics of the top-100 hits. In 1965, around 450 of these words were associated with negative emotions, whereas in 2015 their number was above 700. Meanwhile, words associated with positive emotions decreased in the same time period. There were more than 1,750 positive-emotion words in the songs of 1965, and only around 1,150 in 2015. Notice that, in absolute number, there are always more words associated with positive emotions than there are words associated with negative ones. This is a universal feature of human language, also known as the Pollyanna principle (from the flawlessly optimistic protagonist of the eponymous novel), and we would hardly expect this to reverse: what does matter, though, is the direction of the trends.

The tempo and the tonality of the top-100 Billboard songs was also examined: Billboard hits have become slower, and minor tonalities have become more frequent. Minor tonalities are perceived as gloomier with respect to major tonalities.

The authors, Acerbi and Brand, have some speculation about why the change has occurred–negative emotions transmit more easily, random drift, changes in preferences, a change in music distribution but nothing definitive. Could rap explain the differences? The study looks at the production of new music but what about the consumption? Are we listening to sadder songs or brightening things up by listening to more songs from the past? It would be interesting to know whether this is true in other languages as well.

Hat tip: Paul Kedrosky.


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