In the mood for a brisk, happy, up-tempo tune? You might scan the radio dial for a Top 40 hit, but for a better shot at satisfaction, choose an oldies station.
Over the past half-century, pop hits have become longer, slower and sadder, and they increasingly convey “mixed emotional cues,” according to a study just published in the journal Psychology of Aesthetics, Creativity and the Arts.
“As the lyrics of popular music became more self-focused and negative over time, the music itself became sadder-sounding and more emotionally ambiguous,” according to psychologist E. Glenn Schellenberg and sociologist Christian von Scheve.
Analyzing Top 40 hits from the mid-1960s through the first decade of the 2000s, they find an increasing percentage of pop songs are written using minor modes, which most listeners—including children—associate with gloom and despair. In what may or may not be a coincidence, they also found the percentage of female artists at the top of the charts rose steadily through the 1990s before retreating a bit in the 2000s.
The researchers analyzed the Top 40 pop hits (as measured by Billboard magazine) for the years 1965-69, 1975-79, 1985-89, 1995-99, and 2005-09. Tempo was measured in beats per minute; mode was determined by trained musicians who listened to the recordings. In cases such as The Turtles’ Happy Together, where the verse was in minor mode and the chorus in major mode, the song was categorized by determining which mode made up the bulk of the song (minor in this case).
Strikingly, they found “the proportion of minor songs doubled over five decades.” In the second half of the 1960s, 85 percent of songs that made it to the top of the pop charts were written in a major mode. By the second half of the 2000s, that figure was down to 43.5 percent.
In addition, the songs’ average tempo has decreased over the decades, although this measure is a bit more complicated. “In absolute terms, the slowest-tempo recordings were from the 1990s,” they note, “which suggests that the trend may have leveled out, or started to reverse direction.”
The researchers found this slowdown was more pronounced for major-mode (that is, joyful) songs. This points to “a general reduction in unambiguously happy-sounding recordings,” they write, “as well as an increase in recordings with ambiguous emotional states.”
“The present findings have striking parallels to the evolution of classical music from 1600 to 1900,” Schellenberg and von Scheve write. “Throughout the 17th and 18th centuries …. Pieces tended to sound unambiguously happy or sad. By the 1800s, and the middle of the Romantic era, tempo and mode cues were more likely to conflict,” which allowed composers to express a wide range of emotions within a single piece.
“Popular music from 1965 to 2009 shows the same developmental trend over a much shorter time scale,” they add. “Popular music with mixed emotional cues has always existed, (but today) artistic integrity and commercial success are no longer contradictory, and art-rock bands such as Radiohead have legions of fans.”
While conceding that pop fans may not be consciously aware of a preference for more complex music, the researchers speculate that "musically untrained listeners may recognize quickly and explicitly that a contemporary fast-tempo, major mode song (such as Aqua's Barbie Girl) has something amiss about it besides the lyrics."
They add that "Lady Gaga has somehow been able to transcend this association, such that her fast-tempo, major-mode recordings (Born This Way, Edge of Glory) sound fresh while recalling or quoting music from an earlier time."
So baby boomers who swear by the supremacy of their era’s pop music may have to rethink that assertion, while doomsayers who rue the rise of pop culture can relax a bit. It may not be Beethoven or Basie, but this study suggests mass-appeal music is, on the whole, getting more nuanced and sophisticated.