Music News
1:39 pm
Tue September 4, 2012

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

Originally published on Wed November 6, 2013 2:48 pm

Six years ago, Glenn Schellenberg decided to do an experiment.

Schellenberg works at the University of Toronto, where he studies the psychology of music. The idea behind his experiment couldn't have been more straightforward: He simply wanted to play music for people and get them to rate how happy or sad that music made them feel.

These two emotions — happy and sad — are relatively easy to identify in music, and though there are different ways for music to convey emotion (through lyrics or what kind of instruments are used), Schellenberg says the tempo of a song and whether it's in a major or minor key often strongly influences which emotion the song conveys.

"Happy-sounding songs typically tend to be in a major key, and they tend to be fast, [with] more beats per minute," he says. "Conversely, sad-sounding songs tend to be slow in tempo, and they also tend to be in a minor key."

So Schellenberg sat down with a grad student and told him to find both happy-sounding fast music in a major key and sad-sounding slow music in a minor key. Essentially, they were looking for emotionally clear music that they could play for their future research subjects.

But while the grad 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 — it got a lot harder when it came to contemporary pop music.

There were plenty of fast-tempo songs, but almost all of the songs he found were in a minor key, and didn't sound unambiguously happy; they were more emotionally complicated than that.

"After the second or third time, he came back with songs that — in terms of their musical characteristics — were actually mixed rather than purely happy-sounding," Schellenberg says. "I started to think, 'What's going on here?' "

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?

The Emotional Evolution Of Pop

To find out, Schellenberg did a totally different study. He analyzed more than 1,000 songs — every Top 40 hit from 1965 to 2009 — in terms of tempo and whether the song was in a major or minor key.

Though there was plenty of dark music in 1965, Petula Clark's "I Know a Place" is pretty typical of that year. The tempo is upbeat, and like every other Top 40 song of 1965, it is in a major key: "All [Top 40 songs] published by Billboard, every single one was a major-key song," Schellenberg says.

As a result, many of those songs, like "I Know a Place," communicate a sense of happiness — a sense that good times are just around the corner.

But through the 1980s and '90s, the dominance of the major key in the Top 40 began to shift, slowly at first and then quite radically: "By 2009," Schellenberg says, "only 18 out of [the Top] 40 [songs] were a major key."

That means that the majority of the Top 40 songs, 22 of 40, were in a minor key — the official sound of complexity and sadness.

Consider "Dead and Gone" by the rapper T.I., which hit No. 12 on the charts in 2009. In a way, the message of the song is pretty positive; it's a song about leaving behind self-destructive behavior. But the minor key makes the song sound foreboding.

According to Schellenberg's study, 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.

"People are responding positively to music that has these characteristics that are associated with negative emotions," he says.

Sophisticated Pop

The question, of course, is why? Why would consumers connect more to conflict and sadness now than they did in the '60s and '70s? Schellenberg says he doesn't think it's because people today are any sadder.

"I think that people like to think that they're smart," he says. "And unambiguously happy-sounding music has become, over time, to sound more like a cliche. If you think of children's music like 'Twinkle Twinkle Little Star' or 'The Wheels on the Bus,' those are all fast and major, and so there's a sense in which unambiguously happy-sounding songs sound childish to contemporary ears. I think there's a sense in which something that sounds purely happy, in particular, has a connotation of naivete."

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

"It's more emotionally complex in the sense that it's expressing both sadness in terms of one dimension and happiness in terms of another dimension at the same time," Schellenberg says.

That complexity makes both listeners and composers feel sophisticated instead of naive. In that way, Schellenberg says, the emotion of unambiguous happiness is less socially acceptable than it used to be. It's too Brady Bunch, not enough Modern Family.

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

Sadness and ambiguity: the latest emotional fashion.

Copyright 2013 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

Transcript

MELISSA BLOCK, HOST:

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

ROBERT SIEGEL, HOST:

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.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "ZIP-A-DEE-DOO-DAH")

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.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "DAY IS DONE")

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?

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "I KNOW A PLACE")

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.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "I KNOW A PLACE")

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.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "I KNOW A PLACE")

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.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "DEAD AND GONE")

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?

SCHELLENBERG: Yes, I do.

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.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "THE HAPPINESS HOUR THEME SONG")

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. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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