A new study of 500,000 songs released in the United Kingdom from 1985 to 2015 has found that pop music has become demonstrably sadder in the last 30 years. But is pop music sadder today than it was at the start of the Reagan Administration? Let’s take a look….
Researchers from the University of California at Irvine originally hoped to find common qualities among successful music throughout the last three decades. By analyzing top songs’ common traits, acoustic features and ‘superstar factor’ (that is, whether the musicians behind them had any other recent hits), researchers discovered changing trends.
Amidst their other findings (which we’ll mention below), they also found that song features like ‘happiness’ and ‘brightness’ have declined in the last 30 years.
Is pop music sadder? Here’s how researchers determined it is
Listening to the music, researchers rated each song on 12 binary indicators, including six mood indicators on whether a song was dark or bright in tone, sad or not sad, happy or not happy and so on. Researchers made these indications based on on a song’s sound and lyrical content.
According to the Associated Press, researchers found “the use of positive emotions has declined and indicators of loneliness and social isolation have increased.”
For example, researchers found contemporary modern music typically focuses on the self, using the “I” pronoun more than pronouns like “we,” “us” and “they,” pronouns that indicate companionship and social contact. They also found that modern music contains more anti-social words like “hate” and “kill.”
Researchers saw an “overall increase in tendencies towards loneliness, social isolation and psychopathology” in music, but also noted that “relaxedness” and “danceability” have both increased over the last three decades as well, possibly because electronic and atonal music have become more widespread while rock music is in decline due to a lack of new rock artists and almost no innovations in the rock genre following the ’70s and ’80s punk rock movement.
They also found, generally speaking, that modern musical tastes favor female voices more than male ones.
Researchers say their findings might point to a modern “generalized sense of diminished inhibition” encouraging more people to dance and express their individualized feelings, even at risk of coming off as sadder or angrier.
But the study’smethodology might also be a bit flawed.
A flawed study?
Researchers determined each year’s most popular songs using the Top 100 Singles Chart by the Official Charts Company in the U.K., meaning that their measure is really an indication of musical tastes in a region renowned for its nonstop rain and dour sarcasm. A study of American chart toppers could reveal different trends.
Also, a closer look at music bestseller lists have found that such lists often reflect music seller’s desire to move product more than what actually sells well or is most listened to amongst people. The lists are also responsive to marketing trends which tend to favor white artists.