New study claims that popular music is getting sadder and angrier

Two academics at Michigan's Lawrence Technical University are behind the findings, which focus on the development of song lyrics over time

A new academic study has made the claim that popular music has become sadder and angrier in recent decades.

Analysis by two academics from Michigan’s Lawrence Technical University has produced the findings, which were derived from examining the lyrics of pop songs.

The ‘Quantitative Sentiment Analysis of Lyrics in Popular Music’ paper, which was jointly penned by Kathleen Napier and Lior Shamir, credits the application of a “digital humanities and data science approach to examine how lyrics changed between the 1950s and the more recent years [before] applying quantitative analysis to measure these changes.”

More than 6,000 songs – all of which charted on the Billboard Hot 100 chart between 1951 and 2016 – were utilised for the study and were analysed using IBM’s Watson artificial intelligence platform. The program analysed the sentiment of each song’s lyrics and looked for words or phrases that it could associate with emotions (including anger, fear, disgust, joy, and sadness) before giving each song a rating in sadness from zero to one.

The study found that the average scores for fear, disgust, anger, and sadness in each year’s chart-topping singles rose gradually over the decades, while joyfulness declined. One comparison cited by the academics is Fats Domino’s 1956 song ‘Blueberry Hill’, which scored 0.89 for joy. In contrast, Sam Smith’s 2015 hit ‘Stay With Me’ scored just 0.15 for the same emotion.

“The results show that anger, disgust, fear, sadness, and conscientiousness have increased significantly, while joy, confidence, and openness expressed in pop song lyrics have declined,” the paper concludes in its abstract.

“During the 1950s the purpose of music was entertainment and fun, and I believe that is related to the more joyful and less angry lyrics,” Shamir said about the findings (via SFGate). “During the late 1960s and early 1970s music also became a social and political tool, used to express and even advance social activism and political views.”

The findings from the Lawrence academics tally with the conclusion of another study last year which claimed that pop music has become increasingly sadder over the past 30 years.