Why We're Happy Being Sad: Pop's Emotional Evolution Every Top 40 hit in 1965 was in a major key and had a fast tempo. In 2009, more than half of the Top 40 songs were in a minor key. Has there been a shift in the emotional content of music in the past five decades, and why are we drawn to sadness and ambiguity in music?
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Why We're Happy Being Sad: Pop's Emotional Evolution

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Why We're Happy Being Sad: Pop's Emotional Evolution

Why We're Happy Being Sad: Pop's Emotional Evolution

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This is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News. I'm Melissa Block.


And I'm Robert Siegel. Finally this hour, popular music has changed considerably over the decades and in some surprising ways. A psychologist recently published an analysis of the emotional content of pop songs, and as NPR's Alix Spiegel reports, his analysis says a lot about how society's feelings about feelings have evolved.

ALIX SPIEGEL, BYLINE: Six years ago, Glenn Schellenberg decided to do an experiment. Schellenberg works at the University of Toronto. He studies the psychology of music. And the idea behind this experiment really could not have been more straightforward. Schellenberg simply wanted to play people music.

GLENN SCHELLENBERG: Play bits of excerpts from recordings to people and get them to rate how happy and how sad it made them feel.

SPIEGEL: Happy, sad. These are two emotions that are relatively easy to identify in music. And though there are lots of different ways that music can convey emotion - lyrics, what kinds of instruments are used - Schellenberg says that often the tempo of a song and whether it's in a major or minor key strongly influences how the song sounds.

SCHELLENBERG: Happy-sounding songs typically tend to be in a major key, and they tend to be fast, fast tempo or more beats per minute.


UNIDENTIFIED MAN: (Singing) Zip-a-dee-doo-dah. Zip-a-dee-a. My, oh, my, what a wonderful day.

SCHELLENBERG: Conversely, sad-sounding songs tend to be slow in tempo, and they also tend to be in minor key.


NICK DRAKE: (Singing) When the day is done, down to Earth then sinks the sun.

SPIEGEL: So Schellenberg sat down with a graduate student and told him to find both happy-sounding fast music in a major key and sad-sounding slow music in a minor key, emotionally clear music that they could play for their future research subjects. But while the graduate student had no trouble finding fast, happy-sounding music in a major key when he looked at older musical eras - from the classical period up through the 1960s - when it came to contemporary pop music, it got a lot harder. There were plenty of fast-tempo songs, yes, but almost all of the songs that he found were in a minor key and didn't sound unambiguously happy. They were more emotionally complicated than that.

SCHELLENBERG: After the second or third time, when he came back with songs that in terms of their musical characteristics were actually mixed rather than purely happy-sounding, I started to think, like, what's going on here?

SPIEGEL: Had there been some kind of shift, Schellenberg wondered, in the emotional content of music since the 1960s? How had the psychology of our music changed?


SPIEGEL: To find out, Schellenberg did a totally different study. He analyzed over 1,000 songs - every Top 40 hit from 1965 to 2009 - in terms of tempo and mode. Songs like this one, Petula Clark's "I Know a Place" from 1965.


PETULA CLARK: (Singing) ...because I tell you I know a place where the music is fine and the lights are always low. I...

SPIEGEL: Now, clearly, there were lots of different kinds of music in 1965, so you don't want to oversimplify. But in certain ways, this song, "I Know a Place," is typical of that year. The tempo is upbeat, and Schellenberg says like every other Top 40 song of 1965, it is in a major key.

SCHELLENBERG: 1965, they were all major key.

SPIEGEL: All major key?

SCHELLENBERG: All major key. All 40 published by Billboard, every single one was a major-key song.

SPIEGEL: As a result, many of the songs, like this one, communicate a sense of happiness, a sense that good times are just around the corner.


CLARK: (Singing) Soon, I'm sure you'll be tapping your feet because the beat is the greatest there.

SPIEGEL: Now, this is not to say that there were not dark songs in the 1960s, but this kind of unambiguously happy song was very common at that time, Schellenberg says. So after we go through all of this, Schellenberg goes back to his list of pop songs and finds the year 2009, just as a comparison.

SCHELLENBERG: OK. So in 2009, only 18 of the 40 were major key.

SPIEGEL: Eighteen. This means that the majority, 22 of 40, were in a minor key - the official sound of complexity and sadness.


T.I.: (Singing) Oh, hey, I've been traveling on this road too long, just trying to find my way back home. But the old me is dead and gone, dead and gone. And, oh, hey, I've been traveling on this road too long.

SPIEGEL: This song, "Dead and Gone," by the rapper T.I., was number 12 in 2009. In a way, the message of the song is actually pretty positive. It's a song about leaving behind self-destructive behavior. But the minor key makes it sound foreboding, which, as far as Schellenberg is concerned, is probably why it became popular. His study shows that in the latter half of the last decade, there were more than twice as many hit songs in a minor key as there were in the latter half of the 1960s.

SCHELLENBERG: People are responding positively to music that has these characteristics that are associated with negative emotions.

SPIEGEL: The question, of course, is why? Why would consumers connect more to conflict and sadness now than they did in the '60s or '70s? Do you feel like on some level it might be that they feel like the sad music is more closely aligned with their own emotional state at the time?

SCHELLENBERG: Well, I think people like to think that they're smart. And unambiguously happy-sounding music has become, over time, to sound more like a cliche. You know, if you think of children's music like "Twinkle, Twinkle Little Star" or "The Wheels on the Bus" or whatever, those songs are all sort of fast and major, and so there's a sense of which unambiguously happy-sounding songs sound childish to contemporary ears.

SPIEGEL: If you use a minor key, though, you can make even something with a positive message and fast tempo sound emotionally complicated.

SCHELLENBERG: More emotionally complex in that sense that it's expressing both sadness in terms of one dimension and happiness in terms of another dimension at the same time.

SPIEGEL: So do you think that the emotion of unambiguous happiness is just less socially acceptable now than it used to be?

SCHELLENBERG: Yeah. I do think that. I think there's a sense in which something that sounds purely happy in particular is kind - it has a connotation of a naivete or childishness, yes.

SPIEGEL: You think, like, that emotion, unambiguous happiness, is just less present in our culture in general?


SPIEGEL: There's no real way, of course, to know whether people are less tolerant of unambiguous happiness now than they were 25 years ago. Musical taste alone can't tell you. But I will say that after I hung up with Schellenberg, I read a story in the newspaper about Mitt Romney. The story was about his five handsome sons and how at the beginning of this campaign, his handlers tried to keep them out of public view.

According to the article, the handlers felt that taken altogether, the Romney family presented an image that was just too perfect, too "Leave It to Beaver," too, basically, unambiguously happy. And they felt people couldn't identify with that. As Schellenberg argues about music...

SCHELLENBERG: People have come to appreciate sadness and ambiguity more. Life is more complicated, and they want the things that they consume as pleasure to be complex similarly.

SPIEGEL: Sadness and ambiguity: the latest emotional fashion. Alix Spiegel, NPR News, Washington.


UNIDENTIFIED MAN #1: (Singing) It's the happy, happy, happy, happy hour.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #2: (Singing) Yes, it is.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #1: (Singing) It's the happy, happy, happy, happy hour, and you might even smile.

BLOCK: You're listening to ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News.

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