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Popular songs have gotten sadder over 50-year period

The effect can be seen even with single words, researchers found. The use of the word “love” in the top 100 songs, for example, has dropped in half since 1965.

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

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.

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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.

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“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.