from the world's big
Why are pop songs getting sadder than they used to be?
The use of words related to negative emotions has increased by more than one third.
Are popular songs today happier or sadder than they were 50 years ago?
In recent years, the availability of large digital datasets online and the relative ease of processing them means that we can now give precise and informed answers to questions such as this. A straightforward way to measure the emotional content of a text is just to count how many emotion words are present. How many times are negative-emotion words – 'pain', 'hate' or 'sorrow' – used? How many times are words associated with positive emotions – 'love', 'joy' or 'happy' – used? As simple as it sounds, this method works pretty well, given certain conditions (eg, the longer the available text is, the better the estimate of mood). This is a possible technique for what is called 'sentiment analysis'. Sentiment analysis is often applied to social media posts, or contemporary political messages, but it can also be applied to longer timescales, such as decades of newspaper articles or centuries of literary works.
The same technique can be applied to song lyrics. For our analysis, we used two different datasets. One contained the songs included in the year-end Billboard Hot 100 charts. These are songs that reached wide success, at least in the United States, from The Rolling Stones' '(I Can't Get No) Satisfaction' (in 1965, the first year we considered) to Mark Ronson's 'Uptown Funk' (in 2015, the last year we considered). The second dataset was based on the lyrics voluntarily provided to the website Musixmatch. With this dataset, we were able to analyse the lyrics of more than 150,000 English-language songs. These include worldwide examples, and therefore provide a wider, more diverse, sample. Here we found the same trends that we found in the Billboard dataset, so we can be confident that they can be generalised beyond top hits.
English-language popular songs have become more negative. The use of words related to negative emotions has increased by more than one third. Let's take the example of the Billboard dataset. If we assume an average of 300 words per song, every year there are 30,000 words in the lyrics of the top-100 hits. In 1965, around 450 of these words were associated with negative emotions, whereas in 2015 their number was above 700. Meanwhile, words associated with positive emotions decreased in the same time period. There were more than 1,750 positive-emotion words in the songs of 1965, and only around 1,150 in 2015. Notice that, in absolute number, there are always more words associated with positive emotions than there are words associated with negative ones. This is a universal feature of human language, also known as the Pollyanna principle (from the flawlessly optimistic protagonist of the eponymous novel), and we would hardly expect this to reverse: what does matter, though, is the direction of the trends.
The effect can be seen even when we look at single words: the usage of 'love', for example, practically halved in 50 years, going from around 400 to 200 instances. The word 'hate', on the contrary, which until the 1990s was not even mentioned in any of the top-100 songs, is now used between 20 and 30 times each year.
Our results are consistent with other, independent analyses of song moods, some of which used completely different methodologies, and focused on other characteristics of the songs. For example, researchers analysed a dataset of 500,000 songs released in the UK between 1985 and 2015 and found a similar decrease in what they define 'happiness' and 'brightness', coupled with a slight increase in 'sadness'. These labels resulted from algorithms analysing low-level acoustic features, such as the tempo or the tonality. The tempo and the tonality of the top-100 Billboard songs was also examined: Billboard hits have become slower, and minor tonalities have become more frequent. Minor tonalities are perceived as gloomier with respect to major tonalities. You can try this for yourself by listening to any of the YouTube examples of songs that have been digitally shifted from major to minor, or vice versa, and see how it feels: an unsettlingly happy major-shifted version of REM's 'Losing My Religion' (1991) surfaces periodically on social media.
What is going on here? Discovering and describing trends is important and satisfying, but we also need to try to understand and explain them. In other words, big data needs big theory. One such big theory is cultural evolution. As the name implies, the theory stipulates that culture evolves over time partly following the same principles of Darwinian natural selection, namely, if there is variation, selection and reproduction, then we can expect more successful cultural traits to fixate in the population, and others to go extinct.
By culture, we mean any trait that is socially transmitted as opposed to genetically transmitted. Examples include the language that we speak depending on where we are born, the recipes we use when cooking and, in fact, the music we enjoy. These traits are transmitted socially, in that one individual learns them from observing and imitating other individuals. In contrast, hair colour and eye colour are genetically transmitted from parent to offspring.
The fact that many behaviours are socially learnt is not too surprising. However, for social learning to be adaptive – that is, for it to increase the likelihood of the individual surviving to reproduce – learning has to be selective. It is better to learn from an adult who knows how to cook well, than from siblings who are themselves still learning to cook. Preferentially copying the behaviour of successful individuals is called 'success-biased transmission' in cultural evolution lingo. Similarly, there are many other learning biases that might come into play, such as conformity bias, prestige bias or content bias. Learning biases have been used to understand a multitude of cultural traits in both human and nonhuman animal populations over the years, and are proving a fruitful avenue for understanding complex cultural patterns. To try to understand why song lyrics have increased in negativity and decreased in positivity over time, we employed the theory of cultural evolution to see if the pattern can be explained via social learning biases.
We checked for success bias by testing whether songs had more negative lyrics if the top-10 songs of the previous few years had negative lyrics: in other words, were songwriters predominantly influenced by the content of previously successful songs? Similarly, prestige bias was tested for by checking if the songs of prestigious artists of the previous few years also had more negative lyrics. Prestigious artists were defined as those who appeared in the Billboard charts a disproportionate number of times, such as Madonna, who has 36 songs in the Billboard Hot 100. Content bias was checked for by looking at whether songs with more negative lyrics also happened to do better in the charts. If this was the case, it would suggest that there was something about the content of negative lyrics that made the songs more appealing, and thus more popular.
Although we found small evidence for success and prestige bias operating in the datasets, content bias was the most reliable effect of the three in explaining the rise of negative lyrics. This is consistent with other findings in cultural evolution, in which negative information appears to be remembered and transmitted more than neutral or positive information. However, we also found that including unbiased transmission in our analytical models greatly reduced the appearance of success and prestige effects, and seemed to hold the most weight in explaining the patterns. 'Unbiased transmission' here can be thought of in a similar way to genetic drift, in which traits appear to drift to fixation through random fluctuations, and in the apparent absence of any selection pressure. This process has been found to explain the popularity of other cultural traits, from decorations in Neolithic pottery to contemporary baby names and dog breeds. Importantly, finding evidence of unbiased transmission does not mean that the patterns have no explanation or are predominantly random, but that there is likely a whole multitude of processes explaining the pattern, and that none of the processes we checked for are strong enough to dominate the explanation.
The rise of negative lyrics in popular English-language songs is a fascinating phenomenon, and we showed that this can be due to a widespread preference for negative content plus some other, yet to be discovered, causes. Given this preference, what we need to explain is why pop-song lyrics before the 1980s were more positive than today. It could be that a more centralised record industry had more control on the songs that were produced and sold. A similar effect could have been brought about by the diffusion of more personalised distribution channels (from blank cassette tapes to Spotify's 'Made For You' algorithmic tailoring). And other, broader, societal changes could have contributed to make it more acceptable, or even rewarded, to explicitly express negative feelings. All these hypotheses could be tested using the data described here as a starting point. Realising that there's more work to be done to better understand the pattern is always a good sign in science. It leaves room for fine-tuning theories, improving analysis methods, or sometimes going back to the drawing board to ask different questions.
This article was originally published at Aeon and has been republished under Creative Commons.
- Can music and movie taste indicate psychopathic personality? - Big ... ›
- We need music to be political, not just entertaining ›
Sallie Krawcheck and Bob Kulhan will be talking money, jobs, and how the pandemic will disproportionally affect women's finances.
How can we promote the creation of new neurons - and why is it so important?
- Neurogenesis, the birth of neurons from stem cells, happens mostly before we are born - as we are formed in the womb, we are generating most of what we need after birth.
- After birth, neurogenesis is still possible in two parts of the brain: the olfactory bulb (which is responsible for our sense of smell) and the hippocampus (which is responsible for memory, spatial navigation, and emotional processing).
- Research from the 1960s proves creating new neurons as adults is possible, and modern-day research explains how (and why) we should promote new neuron growth.
Two parts of the brain can continue growing through neurogenesis<img type="lazy-image" data-runner-src="https://assets.rebelmouse.io/eyJhbGciOiJIUzI1NiIsInR5cCI6IkpXVCJ9.eyJpbWFnZSI6Imh0dHBzOi8vYXNzZXRzLnJibC5tcy8yMjkyMzk2NS9vcmlnaW4uanBnIiwiZXhwaXJlc19hdCI6MTYwOTAwODc1MH0.4GDLlZmkwuD0-pJ0s0UWcUoYXMy95a-AM61a_QAlAeA/img.jpg?width=980" id="2e77e" class="rm-shortcode" data-rm-shortcode-id="4e23499fdf3b2185533979083fd02db7" data-rm-shortcode-name="rebelmouse-image" alt="brain made of twigs and plants concept of neurogenesis" />
Neurogenesis is still possible well into adulthood in two very important parts of the human brain.
Image by EtiAmmos on Shutterstock<p>Although most people are aware that aging or bad habits such as heavy alcohol use can contribute to the deterioration of our brains, not many of us give thought to how we can generate new brain cells.</p><p>Neurogenesis, the birth of neurons from stem cells, happens mostly before we are born - as we are formed in the womb, we are generating most of what we need after birth. </p><p><strong>After birth, however, neurogenesis is still possible in two parts of the brain:</strong></p><ul><li>The olfactory bulb, which is a structure of the forebrain that's responsible for our sense of smell. </li><li>The hippocampus, which is a structure of the brain located within the temporal lobe (just above your ears) - this area is important for learning, memory, regulation, of emotions and spatial navigation. </li></ul><p>Of course, when this information first came to light <a href="https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/13860748" target="_blank">back in the 1960s</a>, the next natural question was: How do we promote neurogenesis in those areas where it's still possible? </p><p>Researchers today believe there are activities you can do (some of them may be things you already do on a daily basis) that can promote neurogenesis in your brain. </p><p><strong>Why is it important to promote the growth of new neurons in adulthood?</strong></p><p>We produce an estimated 700 million neurons per day in the hippocampus - this means by the time we reach the age of 50, we will have exchanged the neurons we were born within that area of the brain with new (adult-generated) neurons. </p><p>If we don't promote this exchange with the growth of new neurons, we may block certain abilities these new neurons help us with (such as keeping our memory sharp, for example). </p>
4 ways to promote neurogenesis in your brain<img type="lazy-image" data-runner-src="https://assets.rebelmouse.io/eyJhbGciOiJIUzI1NiIsInR5cCI6IkpXVCJ9.eyJpbWFnZSI6Imh0dHBzOi8vYXNzZXRzLnJibC5tcy8yMjkyMzk2Ni9vcmlnaW4uanBnIiwiZXhwaXJlc19hdCI6MTYyNTE3NjczNH0.qyzh_AIUPKfaQIa1QEq4yTNCAAK9nYkH3HFV9vWXwww/img.jpg?width=1245&coordinates=0%2C0%2C0%2C104&height=700" id="64a68" class="rm-shortcode" data-rm-shortcode-id="ee1307fe2dd61ae425552da56db3c5ff" data-rm-shortcode-name="rebelmouse-image" alt="child playing trumpet concept of learning a new instrument neurogenesis" />
Learning a new instrument helps promote neurogenesis.
Photo by DenisProduction.com on Shutterstock<p><strong>Intermittent fasting</strong></p><p><a href="https://law.stanford.edu/2015/01/09/lawandbiosciences-2015-01-09-intermittent-fasting-try-this-at-home-for-brain-health/" target="_blank">A 2015 Stanford study</a> examined the link between <a href="https://www.healthline.com/nutrition/6-ways-to-do-intermittent-fasting#section1" target="_blank">intermittent fasting</a> and neurogenesis. Calorie restriction and fasting can not only increase synaptic plasticity and promote neuron growth but it can also decrease your risk of developing neurodegenerative diseases and boost cognitive function. </p><p><u>Two of the most common ways you can intermittently fast are: </u></p><ul><li>16 hours per day every day - this is a method where you are able to eat for an 8 hour period of the day and fast for 16 hours of the day. Many people begin their "fast" after dinner, pushing their morning meal far enough towards lunch that most of their "off" eating time happens while they are asleep anyways. </li></ul><ul><li>24 hours every week - this is a method where once a week you fast for an entire day. Some people prefer this method because the rest of the week can resume as normal - but for many, this is a difficult way to fast. </li></ul><p><strong>Traveling to new places</strong></p><p>While traveling is something many of us enjoy — scenic routes and new fun experiences — these things also promote neurogenesis while we're on vacation. <a href="https://www.chicagotribune.com/travel/ct-xpm-2014-01-28-sc-trav-0128-travel-mechanic-20140128-story.html" target="_blank">Paul Nussbaum</a>, a clinical neuropsychologist at the University of Pittsburgh, explains that the mental benefits of traveling are very clear.<br></p><p><em>"When you expose your brain to an environment that's novel and complex or new and difficult, the brain literally reacts. Those new and challenging situations cause the brain to sprout dendrites (dangling extensions) which grow the brain's capacity." </em></p><p><strong>Learning a new instrument</strong></p><p>The mental health benefits of music have long been studied, but did you know that learning a new instrument can promote new neuron growth? </p><p>According to <a href="https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC2996135/" target="_blank">this 2010 study</a>, learning to play a new musical instrument is an intense, multisensory motor experience that requires that acquisition and maintenance of skills over your entire lifetime - which of course, promotes the new formation of new neural networks. </p><p>When is the best time to begin learning a new instrument? Childhood, of course. </p><p><em>"Learning to play a new musical instrument in childhood can result in long-lasting changes in brain organization," </em>according to the study mentioned above. </p><p>While learning an instrument in adulthood will also promote neurogenesis, children who began training with a musical instrument before the age of 7 have shown that they have a significantly larger corpus callosum (the area of the brain the allows communication between the two hemispheres of the brain) than many adults. </p><p><strong>Reading novels</strong></p><p>A study from <a href="http://esciencecommons.blogspot.com/2013/12/a-novel-look-at-how-stories-may-change.html" target="_blank">Emory University</a> showed there was an increase in ongoing connectivity in the brains of participants after reading the same (fiction) novel. </p><p>In this study, enhanced brain activity was observed in the region that control physical sensations and movement. Reading a novel, according to lead researcher Gregory Berns, can transport you into the body of the protagonist. </p><p>This ability to shift into another mental state is a vital skill that promotes healthy neurogenesis in those areas of the brain. </p>
The coronavirus pandemic has brought out the perception of selfishness among many.
- Selfish behavior has been analyzed by philosophers and psychologists for centuries.
- New research shows people may be wired for altruistic behavior and get more benefits from it.
- Crisis times tend to increase self-centered acts.
Paul Krugman on the Virtues of Selfishness<div class="rm-shortcode" data-media_id="7ZtAkm6C" data-player_id="FvQKszTI" data-rm-shortcode-id="828936bf6953080e9018307354c0c02b"> <div id="botr_7ZtAkm6C_FvQKszTI_div" class="jwplayer-media" data-jwplayer-video-src="https://content.jwplatform.com/players/7ZtAkm6C-FvQKszTI.js"> <img src="https://cdn.jwplayer.com/thumbs/7ZtAkm6C-1920.jpg" class="jwplayer-media-preview" /> </div> <script src="https://content.jwplatform.com/players/7ZtAkm6C-FvQKszTI.js"></script> </div> The Nobel Prize-winning economist on the virtues of selfishness.
Evolution Is Moving Us Away from Selfishness. But Where Is It Taking ...<div class="rm-shortcode" data-media_id="cyeqmYCb" data-player_id="FvQKszTI" data-rm-shortcode-id="6c5efecb56456e9acc25cf36935b1826"> <div id="botr_cyeqmYCb_FvQKszTI_div" class="jwplayer-media" data-jwplayer-video-src="https://content.jwplatform.com/players/cyeqmYCb-FvQKszTI.js"> <img src="https://cdn.jwplayer.com/thumbs/cyeqmYCb-1920.jpg" class="jwplayer-media-preview" /> </div> <script src="https://content.jwplatform.com/players/cyeqmYCb-FvQKszTI.js"></script> </div>
Exploring Morality and Selfishness in Modern Times<div class="rm-shortcode" data-media_id="02eX1Cag" data-player_id="FvQKszTI" data-rm-shortcode-id="45cc6180db791f32683988fb52faff26"> <div id="botr_02eX1Cag_FvQKszTI_div" class="jwplayer-media" data-jwplayer-video-src="https://content.jwplatform.com/players/02eX1Cag-FvQKszTI.js"> <img src="https://cdn.jwplayer.com/thumbs/02eX1Cag-1920.jpg" class="jwplayer-media-preview" /> </div> <script src="https://content.jwplatform.com/players/02eX1Cag-FvQKszTI.js"></script> </div> Philosopher Peter Singer discusses the state of global ethics.
Parenting could be a distraction from what mattered most to him: his writing.
Ernest Hemingway was affectionately called “Papa," but what kind of dad was he?