Pop music is getting sadder and more emotionally ambiguous

Gaga is unusual in sounding uptempo yet fresh

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.”

  ResearchBlogging.orgE. 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

Post written by Christian Jarrett for the BPS Research Digest.

32 thoughts on “Pop music is getting sadder and more emotionally ambiguous”

  1. It is interesting that they did not examine the lyrics of the song to determine the emotional content.

    I should point out that it is common in Eastern European music for happy music to be written in minor keys.

  2. Ever heard of an intro? The first chord is often not the tonic, fast bpm can mean angry or agro as in punk and hard rock styles.
    Science fail, not understanding the complexity of the observed phenomena and failing to correctly identify controlling variables is why scientific hubris leads so often to errors like this one.

  3. To all the above, the research did not analyze any of these aforementioned genres and/or musical styles. Mid 20th-Century to early 21st Century American pop music was at the heart of the study, a commercial style of music that indeed follows certain rules of structure, tone, beat, vocalization, etc. Everything from punk to hippie folk psychedelia can indeed influence pop music, but they don't qualify as Billboard chart-toppers, aka the focal point of this study.

  4. Was Conor Oberst of Bright Eyes included in the study. If so, that could have skewed the results.

  5. Well I think we should more concentrate this time on lyrics, and the capability singing of the singer. A Great Singer makes a song beautiful either emotional or either melodious.

  6. Is it just me, or does this not make sense. How can we know it is sadder if it is emotionally ambiguous?

  7. This is pseudoscience. There is very little evidence that this major/minor mode is really the cause to the emotional decline that has been seen in the past 20 years. To me, this clearly just seems like speculation. In the past few years, music has become more apart of who we are and we have used it as a link to help us deal with emotional trouble. So of course music is getting sadder, from a naturalistic observation, you can see that people daily are dealing with much harder decisions than people did in the 70's and 80's, such as drugs and sex. And with so much hate in the world, obviously the music is going to be more emotional; it's how we find a way to figure out what we really believe in.

  8. Idiot. This wasn't a study set out to prove anything. It was just an analysis using a few selected variables. Anyway, you seemed to miss the part where they were analyzing pop music. Not punk. Not hard rock. Not hawaiian slack key. Not reggae. Not hippie folk psychedelia. Try reading the article before making ignorant criticism.

  9. psuedo-science indeed. the interpretation of art is entirely subjective and can't be measured according to scientific standards. As someone else pointed out, the key signature or tempo of a song doesn't imply a certain emotion.

  10. The major/minor mode thing is not presented as the cause of emotional decline in the article. You jumped to that conclusion on your own. However, I think it's not to far of a jump to suggest that the emotional decline of the music an effect rather than a cause of emotional decline. Artist write music that people like because they can identify with the mood it creates, not the other way around.

  11. You guys are reading way too much into this. This “study” was not trying to prove anything or draw any conclusions, at least the way this write-up presents the information. It's just pointing out some interesting trends. They come up with terms like “happy”, “sad”, and “emotionally ambiguous” to categorize the trends.

    There is actually a lot of scientific relevance in music. Like it or not, if you had studied music in any way at all you wouldn't be so quick to criticize the basis of this study. Contrary to what many of the “experts” commenting here think, tempo and mode (no one said anything about key signature) are extremely relevant to the emotion of a piece of music. Those correlations are so well established that all you like Steve-o that are so quick to criticize it just sound like a bunch of fools.

  12. Is music getting more sad and emotionally ambiguous? Not necessarily…a large portion of what makes it on to billboard charts has to do with radio airplay, which as we all know is controlled by whoever owns the radio station, and whoever owns the radio station usually has money invested into a label, so it's kind of useless information. (I'm referring to z-100 style pop stations…since this is an assessment of pop)

    Basically, this can't be used to make an assessment on how society is thinking today. it can be used to make an assessment on how record labels are thinking and who they're spending money to promote.

  13. I think that this post makes some very valid points. But not only in the way music has changed. I think that is the route of the problem but I feel like people's taste in music has just changed in general. But I feel like it has changed because of the way music is written and produced today. If you listen to a song that was popular from 10 years ago it was very happy and a lot of songs were about love and how happy a person is. Now a days if you listen to music it is all about depression and drugs and sex. The way the youth is today i feel like is the influence of the way music is today. The youth today is more depressed and into drugs and sex and money a lot more then they used to be which i believe is why the music is prodced to be that way because producers and artists feel thats what people want to hear. What I personally feel is missing in the music today that used to be there is the happiness. So many things affect a persons unhappiness now a days. People want to hear music that makes them feel like the artist is going through the same thing they are. It is like they can relate and like I previously said producers and artists are now creating music they feel like people want to hear.

  14. I think that this article is strongly related to the evolutionary perspective in pschology. This can be shown as they evolved the music to have a deeper more meaningful message. Instead of in the past where more songs were about nothing like being a barbie girl. As time changes people want to hear music they can connect to. While the artist wants to connect with his audience. With the music evolving it really helps to get more insight in an artists life.

  15. I think this is a very interesting study. I think it should be pointed out that perhaps the researchers are not attempting to establish a cause and effect relationship between the outcomes of their study and, say, mood of a given population. It is interesting if you read between the lines and see that, perhaps a lot of 'fluff' or 'bubblegum' pop is, although generally well-written and produced is often dismissed as 'guilty pleasure' or uncool. Hey…I just met you!………..

  16. i think, the music now is just for market, they created song just for money, thats why many song now to be sad, and not qualified

Comments are closed.