A musician, possibly angry

Pop music lyrics becoming angrier and sadder, research suggests

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According to computer analysis of thousands of songs, the lyrical content of popular music has become increasingly angry or sad with each successive decade.

As any music lover knows, the style of popular music has constantly changed and evolved over the years and the music of 2019 is quite different from the music of, say, the 1960s or 1970s. However, according to data scientists at Lawrence Technological University in Michigan, USA, it is not just the music that has changed, but also the lyrical content and emotions expressed.

The data research team used quantitative analytics to study the change in lyrics of popular music over seven decades, from the 1950s to 2016. The results showed that the expression of anger and sadness in popular music has increased gradually over time, while the expression of joy has declined.

While sad songs have been a staple part of any type of performed music for centuries – from Mozart’s ‘Requiem Mass in D Minor’, Puccini’s ‘Madama Butterfly’ or Henry Purcell’s ‘Didos Lament’, to songs lamenting suicide, murder and death such as ‘Gloomy Sunday’, ‘Strange Fruit’ or ‘Tell Laura I Love Her’ – the research paper specifically analysed the lyrical content of over 6,000 songs from the Billboard Hot 100 (the US pop charts) in each year between 1950 and 2016.

In previous decades, the songs were ranked on the chart mainly by record sales, radio broadcasting and jukebox plays, but more recently it has become standard practice to include other indicators of a song’s popularity, such as streaming services, downloads and social media, to best reflect the changes in popular music consumption.

The tones expressed in each song were analysed by applying automatic quantitative sentiment analysis. Automatic sentiment analysis associates each word or phrase in the song with a set of tones that they express. The combination of the tones expressed by all words and phrases of the lyrics determines the sentiment of that song. The sentiments of all Billboard Hot 100 songs in each year were averaged and the average of each year allowed the team to measure whether the expression of that sentiment increased, decreased or remained constant.

The analysis showed that the expression of anger in popular music lyrics has increased gradually over time. Songs released during the mid 1950s were the least angry, with the anger expressed in lyrics increasing gradually to a furious peak in 2015. The analysis also revealed some variations. Songs released in the three years of 1982-1984 were less angry compared to any other period, except for the 1950s. In the mid-1990s, songs became angrier and the increase in anger was sharper during that time in comparison to previous years.

The expression of sadness, disgust and fear also increased over time, although the increase was milder compared to the increase in the expression of anger. Disgust increased gradually, but was lower in the early 1980s and higher in the mid- and late-1990s. Popular music lyrics expressed more fear during the mid 1980s, with this fear decreasing sharply in 1988. Another sharp increase in fear was observed in 1998 and 1999, followed by a sharp decrease in 2000.

The study also showed that joy was a dominant tone in popular music lyrics during the late 1950s, but it decreased over time and became much milder in recent years. An exception was observed in the mid 1970s, when joy expressed in lyrics increased sharply.

The study shows that the tones expressed in popular music change over time and that the change is gradual and consistent, with a few exceptions. Since the researchers analysed the most popular songs in each year, the study does not show that music changed, but in fact that the preferences of consumers have changed over time. While music fans preferred joyful songs during the 1950s, modern music consumers are more interested in songs that express sadness or anger.

“The change in lyrics’ sentiments does not necessarily reflect what the musicians and songwriters wanted to express, but is more related to what music consumers wanted to listen to in each year,” said Lior Shamir, who participated in the research.

The team published its findings in the Journal of Popular Music Studies.

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