Why Is Pop Music So Sad?


Friday, September 07, 2012

Pop music's not what it used to be. That’s what every generation of no-longer-kids says about what the kids are listening to, but fogey cliches aren’t necessarily wrong. A study just published in the Journal of Psychology of Aesthetics, Creativity, and the Arts tracked the mood of pop songs over five decades of Billboard charts, and it confirms that pop has changed in substantial ways. Far more of today’s hits are now in minor keys (which most of us hear as sadder or more complex) — more than half, as compared to just 15% in the 1960s.

Our graphic representation of the study results is here, courtesy of WNYC’s Data News and Journalism Technology group. (The raw data is here.)

The study, by Glenn Schellenberg and colleagues, found that the average beats per minute fell in those decades as well. Even in uptempo dance music, minor keys are far more frequent, creating a mixed or ambiguous mood.

Why is this happening? Our reporter called up two experts, music writer Chuck Klosterman and Alice Cooper, heavy metal icon and now radio host. Cooper thinks songwriter ego bears some of the blame. “Bands that want to sound like they’re deep and serious cannot play in major keys — they want to go to minor keys to make them sound more mysterious. I think that we have really gotten away from the fun of rock music and we’ve gotten too emotional about it.”

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    Purchase: Amazon
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Ike Sriskandarajah

Comments [12]

Bernd Willimek from Gemany

Why do Minor Keys sound sad?
If you want to answer this question, there is the problem, that some minor chords don't sound sad. The solution is the Theory of Musical Equilibration. It says, that music is not able to transmit emotions directly. Music can just convey processes of will, but the music listener fills this processes of will with emotions. Similar, when you watch a dramatic movie in television, the movie cannot transmit emotions directly, but processes of will. The spectator perceives the processes of will dyed with emotions - identifying with the protagonist. When you listen music you identify too, but with an anonymous will now.
If you perceive a major chord, you normally identify with the will "Yes, I want to...". If you perceive a minor chord, you identify normally with the will "I don't want any more...". If you play the minor chord softly, you connect the will "I don't want any more..." with a feeling of sadness. If you play the minor chord loudly, you connect the same will with a feeling of rage. You distinguish in the same way as you would distinguish, if someone would say the words "I don't want anymore..." the first time softly and the second time loudly.
This operations of will in the music were unknown until the Strebetendenz-Theory discovered them. And therefore many previous researches in psychology of music failed. If you want more information about music and emotions and get the answer, why music touches us emotionally, you can download the essay "Vibrating Molecules and the Secret of their Feelings" for free. You can get it on the link:
Enjoy reading
Bernd Willimek

Oct. 25 2013 11:21 AM
Carol Vialogos from Canadian in Creece

I had written a poem related to this topic.

Where are the songs that communicate hope?
Something to listen to, to help you cope.
The ones of courage and strength
Doesn’t matter what length.
So many are sad, hurting and crying
About giving up and dying.
Songs where we drink to hide the pain
So many songs about the rain.
Telling us that love always ends with a broken heart
No happy endings like the movies, just falling apart.
Messages that there is no life without that person
Instead of helping the situation it is worsened.
Some melancholy and bittersweet sound
Never raises us up, just brings you down.
The show’s over so close the curtain
But how can we really be that certain?
You may question and wonder why,
Sometimes you wish you could die.
Why not tell us how to keep breathing and living
Maybe something about forgiving.
Give us something cheerful and up beat
Not distressful melodies about rejection and defeat.
The tempo of a piece of music that haunts you.
You know you’ve been here before, déjà vu.
Glass half empty no right only wrongs.
Are we programmed by these sad songs?
Songs subliminal what do you expect?
Reminiscing might cause you to reflect.
How they use symbols such as our moon
To manipulates us when we hear a certain tune.
Maybe it's time to change the love songs?
Create ones that right the wrongs.
It is not true you will remain on the shelf
So look for the bouncy melody to empower yourself.
Catchy verses and soaring chorus to repeat and repeat.
Happy, feeling good, inspirational and sweet.

By C. A. August 2012

Sep. 14 2012 10:02 PM

As a musician/DJ, I've 'keying up' pop songs for a VERY LONG TIME. And I must say that if you're implying that this is a RECENT development, then you are off by at least twenty-five years! Back in the late 80s, I was a contributing editor for both Harmonic Keys Magazine (an international DJ mixing monthly) and Joseph P. Brosta's 'BPM' book series. We noticed these same trends and wrote about them back then, and if anything it's slowly become more pronounced in all of the years since.

Your chart is also extremely flawed and I challenge it's accuracy on many levels. For one, after the 1960s everything from 140 BPM on up should be marginalized since they are few. All songs below 085 BPM should also be marginalized for the same reasons, but should perhaps be removed from the equation entirely since most are ballads, and most ballads will always be a major key love song. For another, it should be on a curve as the ratio of acceleration varies at different speeds, i.e. the number of increased beats at +2% are different at 150 BPM than they are at 105 BPM. But that's just talk from someone who knows what to DO with this kind of info!

Finally, it would appear that your basis for exactly WHAT these pops songs are is entirely from a tainted Billfold Magazine perspective - and any knowledgeable musicologist understands the flaw in that logic already!

Sep. 12 2012 11:53 AM
Dw Dunphy from Red Bank, New Jersey

While I agree on several of the points raised (times seem more perilous or at least challenging, "sunny" pop tunes are seldom taken seriously) there are a few other elements to consider. First, there's no sense of long-term history informing modern pop. Where music from the early-60s might have been fed by their parents or grandparents record collections, full of Hit Parade optimism, the historical touchpoints of modern artists tend to cycle in a seven-year echo chamber. They know of musicians from the past but are more likely to emulate peers or the previous stars, so this prevalent mood is consistently inherited like a "gloom gene."

Second, with the rise of the producer-as-star, you may have plenty of acts but only five or six writers of the actual songs among them. Google Max Martin for details.

Third, radio even in it's minimized way as far as the music industry goes still exerts a force on what is and isn't played. Remember such hits as Meco's "Star Wars Disco Theme," Rick Dees "Disco Duck," or even the theme from Beverly Hills Cop? Novelty tracks and instrumentals can no longer be hits. Deemed inconsequential, they've been bred out of the genome. Sunny, happy tunes have also been excised, mostly because the radio gatekeepers won't play them. If radio won't play them, the hitmakers won't write them, and the artists won't record them. Pop music eugenics at its finest.

My advice -- with all the newfangled ways of experiencing music, steer from the usual venues since they will only give you more of the same. There are happy tunes out there. You just have to find them on your own because, to paraphrase Eric Idle, "I bet you they won't play that song on the radio."

Sep. 09 2012 02:20 PM
Jeff W. from Harlem

I'm wondering why you use "We Are Never Ever Getting Back Together" to illustrate the minor-key takeover of pop tunes. That song is in plain old G major, doesn't make any excursion into the minor. What gives?

Sep. 09 2012 11:11 AM

I agree with txadams.

Sep. 09 2012 10:05 AM
Phil Feller from St. Paul, MN

The graph shows that the trend toward a slower tempo seems to have ended, although it looks as though there might be a continuing trend of decreasing standard deviation. My music producers have found the sweet spot for a song's tempo? I also wonder whether the rise of Auto-Tune accelerated the trend away from major-key songs that was already underway. Are major-key Auto-Tuned songs too saccharine to become hugely popular? Thanks for including the raw data so that I can explore hypotheses like these for myself.

Sep. 09 2012 08:13 AM

Don't mistake seriousness for lack of creativeness. Using more keys require more imagination and why bother when you can essentially play the same minor keys and harmonies that every mainstream pop singer and band have been using for the last 20+ years and be paid well for it?

Sep. 08 2012 08:43 PM
George Pierfedeici from Avon, CT

Also revealing is a comparison of photographs of rock groups between the fifties and today. Current photos show serious or angry faces, often looking in different directions (why?) compared to the smiling faces of fifties doo-wop groups, for example. Also compare the dress styles.

Sep. 08 2012 04:52 PM
Jim Houseman from USA

minor key? are these pop tunes really defining minor tonality?

Sep. 07 2012 03:48 PM

@Ranica - You're right! Our mistake on the promo -- we got lost in the lyrics. If you listen to the piece, though, I think we've got our music theory right.

Sep. 07 2012 11:11 AM
Ranica from Mahwah, NJ

The promo running for this program asks the question: Why are so many major hits in a minor key? Yet the song playing on the promo - Taylor Swift's "We Are Never Ever Getting Back Together" - is in a major key.


Sep. 07 2012 10:22 AM

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