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A New Study Finds That Contemporaneous Pop Music Is Becoming Sadder

I can’t remember about the music of the 50s and I don’t remember much about that of the 60s, but I have always been under the impression that music back then was happier, as well as about more carefree subjects. Think about it, who were the equivalents of Radiohead, Bright Eyes, Sigur Ros or Bon Iver back then?


It is just a feeling I have but this was just confirmed by a new study entitled ‘Emotional cues in American popular music: Five decades of the Top 40’, by Schellenberg, E. Glenn; von Scheve, Christian and just published in Psychology of Aesthetics, Creativity, and the Arts.


The authors examined over 1,000 Top 40 recordings from five decades, and found different things such as an increase of female artists and songs longer in duration, but also a progressive increase of songs have using minor chords (associated with sad feeling) and slower tempos. The percentage of minor scales in the songs doubled in the decades between the 60s and today: in the 60s, 85% of the songs were written in major key (associated with happy feeling), for only 42 % today! Overall the authors found that there was an increase of mixed emotional cues in pop music, which has become progressively more sad-sounding and emotionally ambiguous.


And the culminating decade for sad-sounding music? The 90s,… whereas contemporaneous songs have more mixed and ambiguous emotions,… so does it mean we are more confused? to explain this, they evoked ‘the rise of consumerism and individualism in the culture’ which ‘produces a demand for more choice’ so that producers and consumers have ‘sophistication in their taste’.


So we were not only happier back then but also less sophisticated, with simpler feelings. Does it mean more choices imply more mixed emotions, which then imply less happiness? I guess, but let’s see, I still can hear plenty of ridiculously carefree and happy sounding (and dumb) songs these days.

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