In January of this year, data scientists of the Lawrence Technological University (LTU) in Michigan, conducted a scientific study analyzing sentiments conveyed by lyrics of music that became popular between 1950 and 2016.
The scientific analysis showed that after the 1950s, emerging popular music lyrics were mostly sentiments expressing sadness and anger. Throughout the years, lyrical expressions of joy went on a decline, while the popularity of music with sad sentiments had gradually increased over time.
Using quantitative analytics, LTU computer science professor Lior Shamir and Kathleen Napier, an M.S. Computer Science graduate, analyzed the lyrics of more than 6000 songs appearing in the Billboard Hot 100 in each of the years covered.
After all, Billboard Hot 100 songs as reference for songs that became popular every year presents a credible reflection of the preferences of music fans. In the earlier years, songs were ranked and charted based on record sales, radio broadcasts, and jukebox selections. In the more recent years, basis for ranking and charting came to include several other indicators of popularity, such as social media and streaming.
How the LTU Researchers Analyzed Song Sentiments Preferred by Music Consumers
The two researchers scrutinized the tones expressed in each song by applying automatic quantitative sentiment analysis. The application associates each word or phrase making up the lyrics of a song with a set of tones. The combination of the tones and lyrics, then determines the sentiment of that song. Sentiments of all songs appearing in the Billboard Hot 100 in each year are then averaged, and the resulting quotient poses as a measure of whether the expressed sentiment increased, declined or remained constant.
The study revealed that expressions of joy was a dominant tone in the lyrics of songs that became popular during the late 50s. However, its use as sentiment declined over time until it became much milder in recent years. Still, the LTU researchers noted an exception in the lyrics of songs in the mid 70s, as joyful sentiments apparently increased during the height of the disco era.
As the disco scene began to fade by the 80s, expressions of sadness, fear and disgust began to increase, albeit milder when compared to the increase in lyrics expressing anger sentiments. Moreover, words and tones as expressions of disgust increased gradually starting in the early 1980s. Disgust rose to higher levels from mid until late 1990s.
Popular music with lyrics expressing fear became dominant during the mid 80s. Although fear sentiments made a sharp decline in 1988, the analysis showed that fear sentiments increased again in 1998 and 1999. This presumably, was driven by the widespread Y2K scare that emerged during those years. Nonetheless, researchers observed a sharp decline in sentiments of fear by year 2000
The study performed by the LTU researchers does not reveal changes in music style in relation to the study of Billboard 100 songs in each year. That is because the study focused on changes in preferences, as shown by music consumers. This suggests that while music fans of the 50s preferred happy songs, today’s consumers of modern music are more interested in playing songs that express anger or sadness.
As explained by Lior Shamir,
“The changes in lyrics in popular music do not necessarily reflect the sentiments that musicians and songwriters wished to express; the results of our analysis showed the types of sentiments music consumers wanted to listen to each year.”