Nonprofit, nonpartisan journalism. Supported by readers.


UCare generously supports MinnPost’s Second Opinion coverage; learn why.

Popular songs have gotten sadder over 50-year period

Billie Eilish
REUTERS/Eric Gaillard
Grammy Award-winner Billie Eilish's songs include "When the Party's Over," "Six Feet Under," and "Burying a Friend."

No, it’s not your imagination. Popular songs have gotten sadder over the past 50 years.

Using large online digital datasets, researchers at the University of Exeter analyzed the lyrics of more than 15,000 English-language songs published between 1965 and 2015, including all the hit songs that made the year-end Billboard Hot 100 for each of those years. In a study published last November in the journal Evolutionary Human Sciences, they report that the number of positive words (such as “love,” “joy” or “happy”) in those song lyrics fell during that 50-year period, while the number of negative words (such as “pain,” hate” or “sorrow”) rose.

“Let’s take the example of the Billboard dataset,” write two of the study’s authors, Alberto Acerbi, a cognitive/evolutionary anthropologist at Brunel University London, and Charlotte Brand, a postdoctoral research associate at the University of Exeter, in a recent article for the online magazine Aeon. “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 17,50 positive-emotion words in the songs of 1965, and only around 1,150 in 2015.”

The effect can be seen even with single words, they add. The use of the word “love” in the top 100 songs, for example, has dropped in half since 1965 (from around 400 to 200 references per year), while the word “hate,” which didn’t make it into any of the top 100 songs until the 1990s, now appears an average of 20 to 30 times a year.

In absolute numbers, however, positive words still outnumber negative ones in song lyrics, Acerbi and Brand point out. “This is a universal feature of human language, also known as the Pollyanna principle (from the flawlessly optimistic protagonist of the eponymous novel),” they explain, “and we would hardly expect this to reverse: what does matter, though is the direction of the trends.”

Cultural Darwinism

These findings are in line with other studies. In 2018, for example, a team of American researchers analyzed the lyrics of more than 6,000 top 100 songs published between 1951 and 2016 and found that negative emotions were much more prevalent — not just sadness, but also anger, disgust and fear. Over the same period, lyrics became less likely to express emotions of joy, confidence and openness.

Another study, also published in 2018, analyzed the tempo and tonality (minor versus major keys) of more than 500,000 popular songs released between 1985 and 2015. It found that during those decades, a steadily increasing number of songs became slow and written in minor (gloomier) keys.

Why this trend? Acerbi and Brand believe it has to do with cultural evolution, a theory that claims successful cultural traits — such as the songs that become most popular — evolve over time, partly by following the same principles of Darwinian natural selection.

And our music tastes appear to have evolved to include more songs with negative moods.

Acerbi and Brand then looked to see if that pattern could be explained by certain social learning biases. Were songs becoming sadder because songwriters were influenced by the content of previously successful sad songs, for example, or perhaps because prestigious (famous) musicians were more likely to release sad songs?

The researchers found little evidence for either “success” or “prestige” bias. They did find an indication in the data, however, of “content” bias toward negative lyrics. “This is consistent with other findings in cultural evolution, in which negative information appears to be remembered and transmitted more than neutral or positive information,” the researchers explain.

Still-unknown factors

Still, humans’ natural inclination to focus more on negative information doesn’t entirely explain why songs are getting sadder.

“A potential explanation for these results is that a multitude of transmission biases and other cases are at play,” the researchers explain in their study. “It is likely that small shifts, for example owing to historical events or the emergence of particular genres [such as heavy metal and punk music], may have nudged the production and transmission of negative and positive lyrics in opposite director, and random copying exacerbated this trajectory.”

One of the more interesting unanswered questions is why, given the human preference for negative content, the lyrics of pop songs were more positive before the 1980s.

“It could be that a more centralized record industry had more control on the songs that were produced and sold,” Acerbi and Brand write in their Aeon article. “A similar effect could have been brought about by the diffusion of more personalized distribution channels (from blank cassette tapes to Spotify’s ‘Made For You’ algorithmic tailoring). And other, broader, societal changes could have contributed to make it more acceptable, or even rewarded, to explicitly express negative feelings.”

FMI: You can read the Acerbi and Brand’s Aeon article on that publication’s website. Their study can be found and read in full on the Evolutionary Human Sciences website.

Comments (4)

  1. Submitted by BK Anderson on 02/10/2020 - 11:27 am.

    It’s interesting that the ongoing experience(s) of American society over the time period in question are apparently not remotely considered to be a “cause” of the work of musical artists. Is the old idea that “art mirrors life” seen as too embarrassingly naive? It may well be that “negative feelings” are not just more “acceptable” to depict, but are also more prevalent in the society, and that listeners are gravitating to art that expresses their “mood”, their “times”.

    One would think that the same sort of study could be (has been?) done with American film as well. Indeed, my impression would be that the contrast there would be even greater than with music.

    There has almost certainly been a rise in cynicism and loss of hope in the future in American life over the past 50 years, despite what “happy-talk” politicians may tell us. This has coincided with the rise of the political “conservative movement” from its critical mass beginnings in the mid-70s, culminating in the commencement of the Conservative Era in 1980 and continuing (indeed worsening) to the present day. (I note the study drops off at 2015.)

    The period under study began with the cataclysmic Vietnam War, which surely found abundant expression in popular American art (music) over the immediate decade. And after a (very short) period of disgust with American militarism in the post-war 70s, the conservative movement under Reagan began its ceaseless military rehabilitation project that has brought us to our present stage of almost mindless militarism. Of course, the 50 year period encompasses the Vietnam War, the Gulf War, the Balkan War, 9/11, the (so-called) War on Terror, the Afghan War and Bush’s War to Liberate Iraq’s Oil (the latter two still ongoing). That is an enormous amount of war and violence for a society to endure and digest over a 50 year period. Leave aside the cynicism over how the country found itself drawn into so many of the these wars.

    The period also has seen a (slow-in-coming) acknowledgement of human-caused global warming, with an increasing understanding that humanity will now be unable (or unwilling) to save the 11,000 year old stable climate or the millions of innocent species who are now doomed to extinction. Again, the blame will ultimately be placed by historians on the American “conservative” movement, but the fact of emotional despair over the doomed planet and loss of its irretrievable ecosystems is presumably what the nation’s artists would be reacting to.

    And we need not even address the increasing income disparity, indebtedness and anxiety over employment prospects faced by many of today’s Americans, especially its (most musically conscious) young people.

    Unless one buys the American capitalist idea that all our art is ultimately motivated by profit and greed, artists have traditionally been seen as prophets and intellectuals of a society, the ones most in touch with its deepest emotions and zeitgeist. I’d like to think so, anyway, otherwise art is ultimately meaningless and exploitative of its stooge-like “consumers”, who are seen as mindless.

    If that more favorable vision of artists is the case, our musicians over the past half century are seemingly communicating the populace’s increasing despair and anger (even subconsciously) over the multitudinous failures of American society, both politically and culturally.

  2. Submitted by David Markle on 02/10/2020 - 04:57 pm.

    I think this study probably does indicate at least a shift in mood and outlook. Study of psychological implications in popular culture can be quite revealing, particularly in fiction and fantasy including movies and television programs

    • Submitted by David Markle on 02/10/2020 - 04:59 pm.

      In other words, these songs, movies and fictional programs are the commercially viable “dreams” of our society.

  3. Submitted by Michael Anthony on 02/12/2020 - 05:27 pm.

    This copious – and probably well-funded – research is seriously naive.and is basically meaningless. Words as they appear in song lyrics don’t function the way they do in prose – or even in poetry, and any large generalizations about their meaning stands on shaky ground. A song’s music often contradicts the meaning we would normally assign to the words of a song. The researchers, for instance, make much of the word “hate,” arguing that its appearance in a song represents a negative emotion. The snappy tempo of Irving Berlin’s World War Two song “Oh How I Hate To Get Up in the Morning” gives a different shade to the word “hate.” iI’s not sad. It’s not negative. It’s not about “pain and sorrow.” It’s comic. It’s a GI griping about the early call. And does “love”. always carry a positive , joyful and happy meaning in the lyrics of popular songs? What about “Love for Sale,” Cole Porter’s seductive soliloquy sung by a prostitute who’s about to make her nightly rounds. We could also use from these researchers a little bit more clarity on how songs function. Do sad songs make us feel sad? Often they don’t. Every book on the history of the blues makes the point that many of the saddest, most downhearted blues songs are exhilarating. A lot of them make people want to dance, and these folks sure don’t look sad when they’re dancing. A final consideration that these solemn research teams seem to ignore is the relation between singer and song. Often the singer changes the meaning of a song without changing the words. For decades, “Happy Days Are Here Again” was thought to be an old-style whoop-de-do number. Then along comes Barbra Streisand in the early ’60s and makes a famous recording of the song. She slows it down – way down – and gives it a tone of intense desperation. I’m gonna make those happy days come around again or I’m gonna die trying. A light, carefree optimistic song becomes an expression of grasping, needy determination – the result being one of the great recorded performances of all time. My suggestion to the earnest research team at the University of Exeter, and the others quoted: go back to the lab and give this some further, much-needed thought.

Leave a Reply