This week, Scientific American reported on a study by two psychologists that looked at Billboard's top 40 songs over the last 50 years and found that more and more of the music we're listening to is written in minor keys.
What does that mean? I don't want to get too technical, but it's the difference between a song like
"Woolly Bully" — which is fast, upbeat and happy and definitely in a major key — and The Rolling Stone's "Paint It Black." It's in a minor key, E minor, specifically. There's the same upbeat tempo, but it sounds brooding, menacing. Take a listen to some of those songs with our Spotify playlist:
Today, songs like "Paint It Black" are more common. If you're looking for a contemporary example, think about Adele's "Rolling in the Deep," LMFAO's "Party Rock Anthem." And "Gangnam Style," one song that by now you probably never want to hear again (it's in B minor).
Dr. Glenn Schellenberg, a professor of psychology at University of Toronto, co-authored the study. He said the America's taste gradually transitioned from major to minor — the scale tipped to a preponderance of minor key singles in the mid-1990s.
His study didn't just look at tempo but at tempo, gender involvement. Obviously we listen to more women now than we did in the '60s. "But in our sample," said Schellenberg, "the highest proportion of female artists was between 1995 to 1999." Maybe if the Spice Girls and Hole reunite, we can break that record.
Though his study doesn't address the reason, Schellenberg speculated Americans listen to more minor key songs because they've grown a taste for more complex music. "I think it's kind of rhetorical in that composers write things that sound less obvious. And people want to consume products that are less obvious and more complicated. And it's kind of a marker of sophistication."
Schellenberg makes a good point, but I'm not sure it's a sign we're that sophisticated.
Songs from back in the day could be written in major keys, be songs you could dance to, and have really dark themes: "Last Train to Clarksville" was The Monkees' first song, it tells the story of a Vietnam-bound army recruit saying goodbye to his girlfriend. Electric Light Orchestra's "Mr. Blue Sky" is abut loss, and let's not forget "Leader of the Pack" — a teenage tragedy in C Major.
Writing a song like that isn't easy. Maybe we just like getting to the point quicker — or maybe we've lost our taste for nuance.