Hit songs are happier, more danceable and usually sung by women: Study

PARIS • The very infectious 1985 hit Walking On Sunshine, from Katrina & The Waves, continues to stay red-hot and is still being used in commercials, television programmes and movies.

It fits the findings of a study into 30 years of musical evolution, which note that hit songs are "happier", more danceable and more likely to be sung by women than songs that fail to make it to the charts.

But the study also detected a sombre trend: While people clearly prefer happy music, there is less and less of it.

"More and more unhappy songs are being released each year," a research team from the University of California, Irvine, reported in the journal Royal Society Open Science.

Overall, they found that "happiness" and "brightness" in music have declined, "while 'sadness' increased in the last 30 years or so".

But hit tunes defy the trend and tend to be "much" happier than unsuccessful ones - think of Pharrell Williams' 2013 smash Happy.

The findings of the study, which analysed the "sound" characteristics of popular tracks, but not their lyrics, echoed earlier research showing that "positive emotions" in music were dwindling, the team said.

A previous study covering 1980 to 2007 found that music lyrics have become more self-centred, with increased use of the words "me" and "I", fewer social words such as "we" and more anti-social ones such as "hate" and "kill".

This trend in lyrics is in tune with a rise in loneliness, social isolation and mental disorders across society.

The new study, based on a massive data trawl of 500,000 songs released in Britain between 1985 and 2015, found that as "happy" music declined, so did the popularity of songs sung by men.

"In recent years, successful songs are more often sung by females," said the study.

"This is particularly interesting, given a large debate about the role of women in the music industry, especially the issues of gender inequality, stereotypes and the sexualisation of female singers."

Songs were considered successful if they made it into Top 100 charts, which less than 4 per cent of new releases do every year.

Also rising in popularity are songs described as "relaxed" and "danceable", possibly linked to a rise in electronic music and a converse decline in rock and heavy metal.

The research showed that classical and jazz songs were "unlikely" to storm the charts. Dance and pop music were the most popular genres.

The team gave examples of happy songs from 1985, including Live Is Life by Opus, Freedom by Wham! and Bruce Springsteen's Glory Days.

More recent songs with a low happiness index included Sam Smith's Stay With Me and Whispers by Passenger, both from 2014.

Can the research help songwriters? "In a way, it could, if they look at the trends that we found and try to follow them," study co-author Natalia Komarova said.

"But, of course, a large component of success is still something that even mathematics cannot quantify."


A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on May 17, 2018, with the headline 'Hit songs are happier, more danceable and usually sung by women: Study'. Subscribe