Why We’re Happy About Being Sad: The Emotions Behind Pop Music

© Francois Etienne Du Plessis | Dreamstime.com

A recent fascinating NPR article highlighted the research of Glenn Schellenberg of the University of Toronto, where he studies the psychology of music.

The idea behind Schellenberg’s initial experiment was pretty straightforward: he simply wanted to play music for people and get them to rate how happy or sad that music made them feel.

Through music, the emotions of happiness and sadness are relatively easy to identify.  Schellenberg says the tempo of a song and whether it’s in a major or minor key often strongly influences which emotion the song conveys.

“Happy-sounding songs typically tend to be in a major key, and they tend to be fast, [with] more beats per minute,” he says. “Conversely, sad-sounding songs tend to be slow in tempo, and they also tend to be in a minor key.”

The grad student had no trouble finding fast, happy-sounding music in a major key when he looked at older musical eras — from the classical period up through the 1960s — but it got a lot harder when it came to contemporary pop music.

Had there been some kind of shift, Schellenberg wondered, in the emotional content of music since the 1960s? How had the psychology of our music changed?

To find the answer, Schellenberg did a totally different study. He analyzed more than 1,000 songs — every Top 40 hit from 1965 to 2009 — in terms of tempo and whether the song was in a major or minor key.

His findings? “All [Top 40 songs] published by Billboard [in 1965], every single one was a major-key song,” Schellenberg says. But through the 1980s and ’90s, the dominance of the major key in the Top 40 began to shift, slowly at first and then quite radically: “By 2009,” Schellenberg says, “only 18 out of [the Top] 40 [songs] were a major key.”

As an example, take a look at the music video below:

YouTube Preview Image

According to Schellenberg’s study, in the latter half of the last decade, there were more than twice as many hit songs in a minor key as there were in the latter half of the 1960s.

“People are responding positively to music that has these characteristics that are associated with negative emotions,” he says.

As an example, take a look at the music video below:

YouTube Preview Image

The question, of course, is why? Why would consumers connect more to conflict and sadness now than they did in the ’60s and ’70s?

Schellenberg says he doesn’t think it’s because people today are any sadder.

“I think that people like to think that they’re smart,” he says. “And unambiguously happy-sounding music has become, over time, to sound more like a cliche. If you think of children’s music like ‘Twinkle Twinkle Little Star’ or ‘The Wheels on the Bus,’ those are all fast and major, and so there’s a sense in which unambiguously happy-sounding songs sound childish to contemporary ears. I think there’s a sense in which something that sounds purely happy, in particular, has a connotation of naivete.”

If you use a minor key, though, you can make even something with a positive message and fast tempo sound emotionally complicated.

“It’s more emotionally complex in the sense that it’s expressing both sadness in terms of one dimension and happiness in terms of another dimension at the same time,” Schellenberg says.

That complexity makes both listeners and composers feel sophisticated instead of naive. In that way, Schellenberg says, the emotion of unambiguous happiness is less socially acceptable than it used to be. It’s too Brady Bunch, not enough Modern Family.

“People have come to appreciate sadness and ambiguity more,” Schellenberg says. “Life is more complicated, and they want the things that they consume as pleasure to be complex similarly.”

To hear the complete NPR interview, please click on the link below:

All things considered-Why we’re happy being sad: Pop’s emotional evolution


One response to “Why We’re Happy About Being Sad: The Emotions Behind Pop Music”

  1. Why do Minor Keys Sound Sad?
    If you want to answer the question, why minor chords sound sad, there is the problem, that some minor chords don’t sound sad. The solution is the Theory of Musical Equilibration. It says, that music is not able to transmit emotions directly. Music can just convey processes of will, but the music listener fills this processes of will with emotions. Similar, when you watch a dramatic movie in television, the movie cannot transmit emotions directly, but processes of will. The spectator perceives the processes of will dyed with emotions – identifying with the protagonist. When you listen music you identify too, but with an anonymous will now.
    If you perceive a major chord, you normally identify with the will “Yes, I want to…”. If you perceive a minor chord, you identify normally with the will “I don’t want any more…”. If you play the minor chord softly, you connect the will “I don’t want any more…” with a feeling of sadness. If you play the minor chord loudly, you connect the same will with a feeling of rage. You distinguish in the same way as you would distinguish, if someone would say the words “I don’t want anymore…” the first time softly and the second time loudly.
    This operations of will in the music were unknown until the Theory of Musical Equilibration discovered them. And therefore many previous researches in psychology of music failed. If you want more information about music and emotions and get the answer, why music touches us emotionally, you can download the essay “Music and Emotions – Research on the Theory of Musical Equilibration” for free. You can get it on the link:
    or on the online journal EUNOMIOS:
    Enjoy reading
    Bernd Willimek

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

Copyright © Humintell 2009-2018