The increasing sadness in pop music songs

A psychologist and sociologist looked at Billboard pop music hits since 1965 and found that the songs have become more sad:

“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…

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…

“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.

I would be interested to hear how they relate these changes to larger social forces: does this line up with a greater sadness in society or perhaps the ability or proclivity to express negative emotions? I also wonder if the data is skewed at all by only looking at Top 40 songs – does all music reflect this or only the most popular songs (which then reflect the influence of musical gatekeepers such as radio stations, journalists, critics, and music labels)?

Also: could we have a period where we return to more major mode music? Can a musical genre, whether classical or pop music, recover from an extended period of “sadness”?

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