The stereotypical image of a heartbroken teenager listening to “dark” music alone in their bedroom is a cliché for mental health campaigns and doesn’t often evoke compassionate responses. Some cultures mock teenagers for being overly emotional and dressing in clothes that accompany sombre lyrics, but is this apparent preference for negative imagery just a phase that we grow out of? Recent studies have found that the proportion of negative lyrics in songs seems to be growing, and has been increasing since 1965 . Analysing the increase of negative and decrease of positive lyrics over the last few decades may stir curiosity about its potential correlation to mental health. We may wonder, have we begun to propagate sadness even more than we did before? Or, are we learning to use music and other art forms to help people heal by feeling less isolated?
The scientific analysis of emotional trends over time is becoming more possible with the proliferation of large, openly accessible datasets such as Musixmatch . A group of researchers specialising in the study of ‘cultural evolution’, including changes in behaviours, tools, and cultural artefacts over time, decided to investigate the apparent growth of negative lyrics in a dataset of over 150,000 songs between 1965 and 2010. In line with ‘The Pollyanna Principle’ in linguistics, the corpus of lyrics contained more words associated with positive emotions than negative emotions *overall* . However, the proportion of negative lyrics has been increasing since 1965, whereas the proportion of positive lyrics has been decreasing.
When looking at the data, the use of the word “love” roughly halved in 50 years, plummeting from 400 times per year in 1965 to 200 times in 2010. The word “hate”, on the other hand, has skyrocketed to being used 20-30 times per year after not being mentioned at all in the ‘Top 100’ songs during the 90s.
Researchers tried to investigate what was driving this trend and its possible correlations to the theory of cultural evolution . In this field, behaviours are transmitted through populations via copying, often by preferentially imitating those who are most successful or most prestigious in the group. Similarly, cultural artefacts may evolve and may be selected for being more appealing or functional based on particular societal or psychological preferences. This theory echoes Darwinian principles but applies them to learned cultural behaviour rather than genetic evolution.
To test these ideas, the researchers ran statistical models that tried to tell if song lyrics were influenced by the success of previous songs or by prestigious artists. However, they didn’t find much evidence to support either of these hypotheses. On the other hand, the researchers did find that songs that had more negative content tended to do better in the charts, i.e. they were more likely to achieve a ‘Top Ten Hit’ status. This pattern held regardless of genre and was not driven by an increase in the popularity of HipHop/Rap in recent years, as some unfairly and incorrectly intuit. So, what can explain these trends?
The apparent preference for negative content and the increase in it over time might seem upsetting and bring up the question, is society plummeting into despair? However, if we dig a little deeper, there may be a more hopeful and uplifting message behind the data. An alternative, encouraging theory is that the selection of more negative songs can be driven by the fact that, at times, they provide a more useful function than their positive counterparts. Cast your mind back to your most recent heartbreak or period of grief. Would you have been comforted by the sound of someone singing about how in love they are? Or would it have been a solace to hear someone sharing feelings and experiences that mirror your own?
The idea that we seek comfort in art and that it can serve the function of healing, connection, and relatability, is not ground-breaking. In fact, research suggests people reliably underestimate the prevalence of others’ negative emotions, and this underestimation exacerbates their loneliness . Perhaps the popularity of negative song lyrics is an antidote to this loneliness. Hearing others sing and share their negative experiences tells us that we are not alone and show us through music that others have felt and feel something very similar to us.
The spectrum of mental health is non-binary; the world is not divided into people who are ‘mentally healthy’ and those who are not. The spectrum has a place for every person and for every phase of life and diversity of experiences that they go through. While we still have a long way to go in normalising open discussion about mental health, we have walked quite a distance compared to where we were just a few years ago. In many cases, the stereotypical dark image of the teenager listening to music continues to be ‘symbolic’ of mental health conditions in many communities and cultures. If one were to look at this data at the surface level, it might even appear to corroborate this imagery. However, perhaps if we dig a little deeper, we can further study, analyse, and understand the correlations these trends have with our human tendency to find solace and liberation in art. Perhaps, rather than plummeting into despair, our society has been finding ways to promote healing and emotional catharsis through music, adding to how we can all, in our own ways, find remedies for our pain.
- Cultural Evolution of Emotions in Song Lyrics: https://doi.org/10.1017/ehs.2019.11
- Cultural Evolution in the Digital Age: https://oxford.universitypressscholarship.com/view/10.1093/oso/9780198835943.001.0001/oso-9780198835943
- The Polyanna Principle: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Pollyanna_principle
- Cultural Evolution: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Cultural_evolution
- Misery Loves More Company Than People Think: https://doi.org/10.1177/0146167210390822