Though I don’t agree with those, like Jody Rosen, who call the recent study suggesting that pop songs have become darker and sadder over the years, “utter malarky”, there’s still a lot wrong with it, at least going by the summary I’ve read. I’m willing to bet that on a factual basis much of what they say is true. As someone who’s been listening to pop music since about the time this study starts (1965), I agree that pop has become more personal and reflective, and that the songs have become longer, more musically complex, and contain more shades of emotion and meaning (none of these changes are bad; it’s just the way things are).
But the study also seems to be based on outdated ideas of what different musical modes mean. I’m more interested in how they get the idea that children associate minor modes and slower tempos with sadness and fast tempos and major modes with happiness. Are there studies that prove this, and is it something innate or something that’s learned? There was a time after all, when certain chords were considered evil and filled with dissonance—chords that are now considered harmonically perfect, and even mawkish. I’m reminded of the famous Glenn Gould essay in which he declared The Beatles unlistenable because they didn’t understand that certain keys were meant to be sad while others were meant to be happy. They kept mixing them up in ways that, to Gould, made no sense at all. He preferred Petula Clark.
At my age, I’m often confused by the sound of modern records: this is especially true in hip-hop, where somber and uneasy beats are often matched with songs about fun, games, and sex. But that difficulty is more cultural than musical: African-American music has always made greater use of minor modes and slower tempos even when expressing joy; just because they call it the blues doesn’t mean it’s sad, or only sad. How different populations, and different generations, understand music changes all the time, and though it makes a certain sense that, in a culture where we are inundated with music, people should have a greater appreciation of more complicated sounds, that doesn’t mean that they hear them as complicated. They adapt to their musical environment like any other aspect of their surroundings. The music that may seem complicated or confusing on a technical level, sounds simple and straightforward on the experiential level. No one hears the same way as anybody else, and studies like this, though they may help frame the questions people have about music, answer none of them. Possibly because they can’t be answered.