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Sad Songs (Say So Much)

Research finds that pop music is getting more melancholy – a sign, perhaps, of the times?

Growing up in the 1960s, Glenn Schellenberg spent much of his weekly allowance on Beatles singles – sweet, boppy numbers such as “Help” and “She Loves You.” In the ’70s and early ’80s, the Manitoba native played keyboards with his own rock band in Toronto, and sometimes with Martha and the Muffins when they toured. Now a psychology professor at U of T Mississauga, Schellenberg has applied his academic training to look back at his youthful passion, arguing that pop songs have become sadder over the last half-century.

Schellenberg and colleague Christian von Scheve, of the Freie Universität in Berlin, examined the Billboard Hot 100 List in the last five years of each decade between 1965 and 2009, analyzing each song’s tempo and key. The researchers determined that songs have grown dramatically slower over time, and that a radical shift has taken place from major to minor modes. More than 80 per cent of the most popular songs on the radio in the ’60s were in the happier major keys, compared with about 40 per cent of the more recent charttoppers. Psychological research shows that slower songs in minor keys tend to elicit more doleful responses.

“There is an element of taste here,” says Schellenberg. “Increasingly, we tend to view music with negative emotions as more genuine, and adult pop that is fast and in a major mode as somewhat childish.” (He gives as examples ABBA’s “Waterloo” or Aqua’s “Barbie Girl.”) He also guesses there’s a connection between the worsening economic times in the West and the increasing melancholy of our songbook. “In the music, you can see the postwar boom slowly going away.” In short, there’s this feeling among many coming of age now that they’ve arrived on the scene, in Neil Young’s evocative phrase, after the goldrush.

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