Expert Commentary

Psychological trends and popular U.S. song lyrics

2011 study in Psychology of Aesthetics, Creativity, and the Arts on pop music lyrical trends and wider psychological changes.

Criticism of the U.S. entertainment industry often focuses on song lyrics, which some consider crude or violent. Whatever one’s opinion, whether such pop culture representations drive behavior or merely reflect public trends is open to question.

A 2011 study in the journal Psychology of Aesthetics, Creativity and the Arts, “Tuning in to Psychological Change: Linguistics and Emotions over Time in Popular U.S. Song Lyrics,” looks at how changes in pop-music lyrics correlated with changes in personality traits and emotions of the public at large. The study analyzed the lyrics of the Top 10 most popular songs in America from 1980 to 2007.

The study’s findings include:

  • Based on the rate of first-person singular pronouns in lyrics, researchers concluded that songs have become more self-focused over the last 27 years. Additionally, words associated with social interaction and community values diminished over the same period.
  • An analysis of song lyrics over the last three decades indicated that, overall, popular music has become more antisocial and angry.
  • Societal rates of depression, loneliness and self-focus have increased in parallel with pop-music lyrics with similar themes.

The authors did not test how lyrics affect psychological states among individuals or groups. Instead, they sought to demonstrate that lyrics “changed over time similar to the increases in individualistic traits across the same time period in the U.S.” Therefore, they note, “simply tuning in to the most popular songs on the radio may provide people with increased understanding of their generation’s current psychological characteristics.”

Tags: arts, entertainment