Singing the blues

Pop mu­sic sad­ness is on the up­swing, ac­cord­ing to re­cent uni­ver­sity study

Edmonton Journal - - YOU - MARK KENNEDY

A study of hun­dreds of thou­sands of pop­u­lar songs over the past three decades has found a down­ward sonic trend in hap­pi­ness and an in­crease in sad­ness, as the chirpy band Wham! gave way to the moody Sam Smith.

For the re­port in the jour­nal Royal So­ci­ety Open Sci­ence, re­searchers at the Uni­ver­sity of Cal­i­for­nia, Irvine looked at 500,000 songs re­leased in the U.K. be­tween 1985 and 2015, and cat­e­go­rized them ac­cord­ing to their mood.

“‘Hap­pi­ness’ is go­ing down, ‘bright­ness’ is go­ing down, ‘sad­ness’ is go­ing up, and at the same time, the songs are be­com­ing more ‘dance­able’ and more ‘party-like,’” co-au­thor Natalia L. Ko­marova said.

Of course, the re­searchers em­pha­size that a grad­ual de­crease in the av­er­age “hap­pi­ness” in­dex does not mean that all suc­cess­ful songs in 1985 were happy and all suc­cess­ful songs in 2015 were sad. They were look­ing for av­er­age trends in the acous­tic prop­er­ties of the mu­sic and the moods de­scrib­ing the sounds.

Some songs with a low hap­pi­ness in­dex in 2014 in­clude Stay with Me by Sam Smith, Whis­pers by Pas­sen­ger and Un­miss­able by Gor­gon City. Some from 1985 with a high hap­pi­ness in­dex in­clude Free­dom by Wham!, Glory Days by Bruce Spring­steen and Would I Lie to You? by the Eury­th­mics.

“The pub­lic seems to pre­fer hap­pier songs, even though more and more un­happy songs are be­ing re­leased each year,” the re­searchers wrote. They also found the most suc­cess­ful gen­res of mu­sic were dance and pop, as well as a “clear down­ward trend” in the suc­cess of rock, start­ing in the early 2000s.

The over­all mood shifts in the songs’ mu­si­cal fea­tures mir­ror other stud­ies that have ex­am­ined lyric changes over the years. They have found the use of pos­i­tive emo­tions has de­clined and in­di­ca­tors of lone­li­ness and so­cial iso­la­tion have in­creased.

“So it looks like, while the over­all mood is be­com­ing less happy, peo­ple seem to want to for­get it all and dance,” emailed Ko­marova, who wrote the re­port with Myra In­te­ri­ano, Kam­yar Kazemi, Li­jia Wang, Jienian Yang and Zhaoxia Yu.

The re­searchers also found that the “male­ness” of songs — the fre­quency of male singers in pop­u­lar mu­sic — has de­creased over the last 30 years. “Suc­cess­ful songs are char­ac­ter­ized by a larger per­cent­age of fe­male artists com­pared to all songs,” they write.

That find­ing comes at a time when the in­dus­try is wrestling with the is­sue of gen­der in­equal­ity, and men over­whelm­ingly dom­i­nate the ranks of artists and song­writ­ers.

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