Pop music is getting sadder and more emotionally ambiguous

Pop music is getting sadder and more emotionally ambiguous

Arts September 27, 2012 / By Christian Jarrett
Pop music is getting sadder and more emotionally ambiguous

Research finds songs in an increasingly minor key of life.

Have you heard older generations lamenting the way pop songs don't sound like they used to? There's a sense that the hits from yesteryear had an innocence and feel-good quality that's missing from today's pop offerings. Now Glenn Schellenberg and Christian von Scheve have confirmed what many suspected - pop music over the last five decades has grown progressively more sad-sounding and emotionally ambiguous.

The researchers analysed the tempo (fast or slow) and mode (major or minor) of the most popular 1,010 pop songs identified using year-end lists published by Billboard magazine in the USA from 1965 to 2009. Tempo was determined using the beats per minute of a song, and where this was ambiguous the researchers used the rate at which you'd clap along. The mode of the song was identified from its tonic chord – the three notes played together at the outset, in either minor or major. Happy sounding songs are typically of fast tempo in major mode, whilst sad songs are slow and in minor. Songs can also be emotionally ambiguous, having a tempo that's fast in minor, or vice versa.

Schellenberg and von Scheve found that the proportion of songs recorded in minor-mode has increased, doubling over the last fifty years. The proportion of slow tempo hits has also increased linearly, reaching a peak in the 90s. There's also been a decrease in unambiguously happy-sounding songs and an increase in emotionally ambiguous songs. The findings complement an analysis of pop lyrics from 1980-2007, published last year, that found a drop over time in references to social interactions and positive emotions, but an increase in angry and anti-social words.

Why has pop music changed like this? Schellenberg and von Scheve can only speculate. They point to the rise of consumerism and individualism, which produces a demand for more choice; increasing cultural and societal ambiguity (such as the erosion of traditional gender roles); as well as the desire among pop consumers to demonstrate distinctiveness and sophistication in their taste.

Unambiguously happy songs like Abba's Waterloo sound, to today's ears, "naive and slightly juvenile", the researchers noted. And whilst modern songs in a similar style, such as Aqua's Barbie Girl, can still enjoy huge commercial success, they're usually seen as a guilty pleasure and savaged by critics.

Schellenberg and von Scheve think emotional ambiguity in a song is a way for modern acts to convey their seriousness and complexity. Lady Gaga is highlighted as rare in her ability to produce up-tempo major-mode recordings, such as Born This Way, that "sound fresh while recalling or quoting popular music from an earlier time."

Other findings to emerge from the analysis were a general lengthening of songs, and a greater prevalence of female acts." Our study sheds light on links between long-term cultural change on a macro-social scale and emotional expression, perception, and responding, at least in relation to music," the researchers concluded. "As such the findings improve our understanding of the individual in relation to society, and how culture is shaped by the emotional needs and preferences of individuals."


E. Glenn Schellenberg, and Christian von Scheve (2012). Emotional Cues in American Popular Music: Five Decades of the Top 40. Psychology of Aesthetics, Creativity, and the Arts DOI: 10.1037/a0028024

This post originally appeared at BPS Research Digest

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