Song Lyrics Have Become Angrier, Simpler and More Repetitive, Scientists Find

An analysis of more than 12,000 rap, pop, country, rock and R&B songs from the past 50 years shows more emotional and straightforward lyrics

A stock photograph of a concert, with silhouetted fans raising their arms in the foreground and a singer on stage in the background.
Researchers found that lyrics in each of five popular music genres were becoming more repetitive and charged with negative emotions. Desi Mendoza via Wikimedia Commons

In recent years, the growing availability of personalized music data has made many listeners more perceptive of their own tastes and tendencies. But measuring how music itself has changed—across genres and decades—is an arguably more daunting task. Now, scientists have tried to do just that.

A new study published last week in the journal Scientific Reports analyzed thousands of English-language songs released between 1970 and 2020 to better understand how music’s content, construction and tone are evolving. The team of European scientists examined five of the Western world’s most popular music genres: rap, pop, country, rock and R&B.

In all, the team found that lyrics over the past 50 years have generally become more personal, straightforward and charged with negative emotions—a trend, the researchers hypothesize, that reflects both society’s mood and the changing landscape of how music is enjoyed.

Scientists began by building a music database using the online platform, with lyrics pulled in from From an initial pool of 582,759 full songs to choose from, they narrowed their data set to 353,320—then analyzed the lyrics for traits like complexity, readability, structure, rhyme and emotion. Next, artificial intelligence models created and studied a representative sample of 12,000 songs, which included a more balanced mix of release years and genres.

Overall, the analysis revealed that songs now use more rhyming words and choruses. “Across all genres, lyrics had a tendency to become more simple and more repetitive,” Eva Zangerle, the study’s senior author and a computer science professor at the University of Innsbruck in Austria, tells the Agence France-Presse (AFP).

Songs have also become more personal, with pronouns such as “mine” and “me” increasing in frequency across nearly all genres, except for country. They are growing more emotional, too—all genres increased the use of words tied to negative emotions, with rap showing the biggest rise in anger.

Alongside the general trends, different genres told their own stories. “Among the evaluated musical genres, rap is the one in which lyrics play the most prominent role,” the researchers write. Listeners viewed rap lyrics online most often, but the “richness” of the genre’s vocabulary—described as the number of unique words used—was seen to decrease with time. Researchers attributed this trend to rap songs’ tendency to repeat lines and rhymes.

Country music fans were more likely to search and view the lyrics of newer songs, and conversely, rock listeners were more likely to view the lyrics of older songs—a reflection, the researchers posit, of the ages of the genres’ audiences.

Listeners of R&B, a category that also included soul music, viewed lyrics the second most often, reports Forbes’ Arianna Johnson. But for pop, rock and country, “lyrics might not be a very meaningful indicator” of how the genres have evolved over the last five decades, the authors write.

With more music than ever being listened to on apps and streaming platforms, capturing listeners’ attention has moved to the forefront of many artists’ consideration—and the trends revealed in the new study may reflect that.

“When people are faced with lots and lots of choices, they tend to prefer things that are easier to process and more straightforward,” Michael Varnum, a cultural psychologist at Arizona State University who did not participate in the research, tells Scientific American’s Lauren Leffer.

Analysis from Paul Lamere of Echo Nest, a music data platform owned by Spotify, shows that almost 50 percent of Spotify listeners will skip a song before it ends, and nearly one-quarter will skip it in the first five seconds.

“The first 10 to 15 seconds are highly decisive for whether we skip the song or not,” Zangerle tells AFP. So maybe, in the race to grab listeners’ interest, more repetitive songs have an edge. “Lyrics should stick easier nowadays, simply because they are easier to memorize.”

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