Tag Archives: lyrics

They don’t make music like they used to — song lyrics are becoming simpler

From Love Me Do to Despacito, music has sure changed a lot over the years. Some would argue that it’s become better; others would criticize the lack of depth in modern music. But for the most part, music is appreciated subjectively, with few truly objective measures to compare past and present music.

But one such objective measure was recently analyzed in a study by researchers from the US and Canada. They looked at popular American song lyrics over the past six decades, comparing over 14,000 songs. The authors found that indeed, song lyrics have become simpler, and also offer some insights into why this may be happening.

Image credits: Eric Nopanen.

“Music is a human universal,” the researchers explain in their study, and it’s influential to cognition and behavior in ways that are not always clear. Because songs can be so rich in meaning, social scientists have long explored the ways that such lyrics intersect with some fundamental social processes. In the new study, researchers looked at lyric complexity in time and the social trends that could be connected to it.

The way researchers look at how complicated lyrics are is pretty neat. They use a measure called compressibility — the same type of algorithm that can compress your files into .zip or .rar files can also be applied to lyrics. In the same way that some files can be compressed more than others (because it is simpler for the algorithm to compress them), some song lyrics can also be compressed more than others. It’s not a perfect measure, but it’s one of the best we have.

Based on this metric, lyrics for popular songs have become progressively simpler as the years passed.

Image credits: Varnum et al.

There also seems to be a serious incentive to keep lyrics simple: simpler songs tend to do better on the charts, especially when there are more songs available to listen to. In other words, when faced with a multitude of songs, listeners tend to fall back on simpler songs — and with the music industry churning out more songs than ever before, this could help explain why songs are getting simpler.

“Our findings suggest that the answer may have to do with the proliferation of new songs available to consumers. The present work represents one of the first attempts to use big data and time series methods to quantify temporal shifts in information transmission dynamics at the societal level.”

Researchers also looked at other factors that could be connected to lyrical complexity. They looked at things like GDP per capita, unemployment, external threats like climate or war, immigration, and several others — but the correlation to the number of songs appeared to be more dominant.

The team cautions that the findings are not causal: just because there is an apparent connection between two elements doesn’t mean that one is causing the other. These relationships will be further explored by subsequent research.

The study was published in PLoS.

High unemployment makes song lyrics angrier — but not sadder or anxious

Music helps us estimate how healthy a country’s economy is, a new study surprisingly reveals. More to the point, national unemployment rates can predict the negative emotional content in lyrics in a country’s songs.

Image via Pixabay.

Songs have a very powerful emotional component, and past research has shown that people tend to listen to tunes that match their current moods or preoccupations. Starting from that chain of thought, a new paper aimed to find if music can be used to estimate the socioeconomic health of a community (in this case, a country).

The team worked with popular song lyrics from the US and Germany and report that unemployment rates predicted feelings of anger portrayed in songs in both countries.

Rage against the economy

“This study aimed to examine how sentiments in top songs coincide with changes in national unemployment rate. In particular, we focused on three common negative emotions (i.e., anxiety, sadness, and anger) expressed in lyrics,” the researchers say.

For the study, the team used a text analysis program called the Linguistic Inquiry and Word Count (LIWC) to trawl through the lyrics of the top 10 most popular songs in the US and Germany between 1980 and 2017. Songs with no lyrics were removed from the analysis.

The final sample of US songs included 370 lyrics (149,660 words) while the German sample totaled 366 lyrics (120,076 words). From there, the team used the LIWC to estimate emotional content in three categories: anger, sadness, and anxiety. They also looked at how word frequency denoting each emotion compared to unemployment rates in each country at the time these songs were written.

At first, the team writes, there seems to be no discernible link between unemployment rates and such negative emotional content in music. However, after controlling for other. elements that impact individuals’ economic prospects, especially ones that tie into inflation (GDP per capita, housing prices, inflation, and population density), the unemployment rate showed itself to be a “significant predictor” of anger content in US lyrics, they report.

German lyrics fared similarly: there was no immediate discernable link between unemployment and sadness or anger. After controlling for the same indicators, however, it was a good predictor of anger in lyrics.

As to why this dynamic forms, the authors have two theories. The first one is that socioeconomic factors can impact the emotional state, and thus behavior, of consumers. High rates of unemployment can nurture feelings of stress and anger, and consumers might favor songs that reflect such a state, driving them up in the charts. The second theory is that such factors impact artists and composers who transpose their feelings of stress and anger into their work.

The explanation could, of course, lie somewhere in the middle of these tho theories.

One interesting tidbit of these findings is that sadness or anxiety didn’t seem to change in response to employment rate — suggesting that anger is the primary public response to poor economic prospects.

“This is consistent with preliminary research illustrating that unemployment can lead to various affective responses, but the central emotional response is anger when the adversity is attributed to external causes,” the paper reads.

One of the study’s most obvious limitations is that it only looked at the lyrical component of songs, ignoring the musical frame around them. This frame could alter the emotional message being conveyed by the songs. It also focused on two countries in the Western world. Thus, it is unclear whether dramatically different cultures would show the same response.

In the future, the authors plan to control for “melodic attributes” in songs as well, in order to better gauge their emotional content.

The paper “Unemployment Rate Predicts Anger in Popular Music Lyrics: Evidence From Top 10 Songs in the United States and Germany From 1980 to 2017” has been published in the journal Psychology of Popular Media.