Pop tunes getting slower and sadder, researchers say

From The Vancouver Sun:

he oldies are indeed golden when it comes to music, according to a new study of more than 1,000 Top 40 songs spanning five decades.

Researchers from Canada and Germany report pop music recordings have become progressively more “sad-sounding” over time, as characterized by slower tempos and increased use of minor mode – that is, scales that evoke the same feelings one experiences when pondering orphan puppies or long-weekend gas prices.

The study found the proportion of minor-mode songs has fully doubled since the mid-1960s.

This increase comes at the expense of happier songs penned in major mode, which have gone from representing 85 per cent of top pop songs to just 42.5 per cent.

“Many people assume pop music is banal in its happiness. But most songs now are actually in minor key,” says lead author Glenn Schellenberg, a professor of psychology at the University of Toronto. “Composers write in minor because it sounds smarter on some levels, and more complicated. And consumers like it for the same reason – although I don’t think that’s conscious.”

Alongside sociologist Christian von Scheve, of the Free University of Berlin, Schellenberg analyzed 25 years of Top 40 hits – per Bill-board charts – from 1965 to 1969, 1975 to 1979, 1985 to 1989, 1995 to 1999 and 2005 to 2009.

Over the years, they detected a gradual decrease in song tempo, which was most pronounced for songs written in major mode. In other words, pop music became far less likely to be unambiguously cheery.

“It’s a marker of cultural sophistication. Over time, music that’s unequivocally happy has come to sound trite,” says Schellenberg, pointing to 1970s Swedish pop group Abba as an example.

In addition, as the lyrics of Top 40 songs became more “self-focused and negative,” the music itself got sadder-sounding and was likelier to communicate mixed emotional messages – a finding that has striking parallels to the evolution of classical music.

“The baroque and classical eras were consistent in terms of their cues to happiness and sadness: faster pieces tended to be major and slower pieces tended to be minor,” says Schellenberg, recalling the musical periods between 1600 and 1820. “But in the Romantic era [1820 to 1900] that switched, creating mixed emotional cues.”

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