Pop music has gotten sadder in the last 30 years, according to a study published in the Royal Society Open Science journal.
Researchers used more than 500,000 songs released in the United Kingdom from 1985 to 2015 to analyze what makes a song successful, as in reaching the top charts. They found that successful music shows a downward trend in happiness and a rising trend in sadness. At the same time, partying and danceable sound patterns are growing.
While more musicians are producing melancholy music, however, happier songs continue to be the most successful. The data illustrates that there are still more sad songs not on the Billboard Top 100 chart than on it.
As the study explains, “The public seem to prefer happier songs, even though more and more unhappy songs are being released each year.”
The decline of happy music in the Top 100 could potentially change that.
Some local musicians have noticed the sadness in contemporary songs. Songwriter Ariel Hartley, who sings and plays guitar for Denton rock band Pearl Earl, says she doesn’t listen to the radio, partly because the songs being played evoke depressing feelings.
“It’s easy to hone into heartbreak songs and songs of lingering for someone,” Hartley says. “I would say that a major theme in use is that we don’t know how long we’re going to be here for — there’s a sense of impending doom on society. I think that that’s definitely something that everybody can get on board with, feeling as if maybe the world is ending.”
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The relationship between instrumentality and lyrics has been a vital component in understanding why songs may be sadder. A source in the study indicates that “popular music lyrics now include more words related to a focus on the self (e.g. singular first person pronouns), fewer words describing companionship and social contact (e.g. plural first person nouns) and more anti-social words (e.g. ‘hate’, ‘kill’, etc.).”
Although Hartley has made music she describes as sad, she believes these kinds of songs can help the listener feel better.
“I think that some of my songs can have a disheartening undertone in the lyrics,” Hartley says. “I’m not trying to make songs that make people feel sad. If anything, I’m trying to make songs that make people get out of sadness or to reflect on it in a different way. I write music to get out of it, so I’d like to think that it’s kind of a way to bring resolution. I write songs to feel resolved about an issue, not to dwell on it.”
Kyle and Myles Mendes, twin brothers who make up the synth-powered band NITE, consider their music to be proof that songs have gotten more depressing yet more danceable. Like Hartley, they agree that sad music can make it easier to overcome sad feelings.
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“The majority of the material we write relates to the study, and I believe the future of music will continue in this fashion,” Myles Mendes says. “Melancholic music in a lot of ways is a cure for melancholy itself. Music helps us cope and not feel so isolated with our problems, especially in the darkest seasons of our lives.”
Beatific song elements are able to entice listeners so that the words can express a dismal message in a more pleasing way to hear. Myles Mendes says he thinks people can identify with this juxtaposition of sadness and an upbeat sound.
“I also see this kind of writing process to be very intentional and that the duality of the song [happy tune/sad lyrics] somehow relates to everyone listening,” he says. “I believe a lot of instrumentals are written as an appealing capsule to hold a darker, not-so-appealing truth to humanity.”