The Charts May Be Getting Sadder But Popular Music Has Never Been More Varied

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By Adam Behr in The Conversation.


In 1985, the best selling song in the UK was Jennifer Rush’s The Power of Love. Thirty years later, it was Uptown Funk, by Mark Ronson, featuring Bruno Mars. From soft-rock power ballad to dance track, these were two very different chart toppers.

It’s obviously difficult to take a sample of two songs and draw sensible conclusions about changes in popular music. But what about a sample of 500,000 songs? That’s exactly what scientists at the University of California Irvine have done, to track trends in the success of different kinds of song between 1985 and 2015.

The researchers made use of the burgeoning availability of large datasets, in this case the crowd-sourced online music encyclopedias Musicbrainz and Acousticbrainz. They analysed half a million songs released in the UK during that 30-year period and correlated chart success with the acoustic features of the songs.

These are broken down into variables like timbre, tonality, danceability, mood and clusters of genres. The findings suggest there is a broad trend for fewer happy songs and more sad songs, while at the same time there has been an increase in the number of danceable songs. Yet while this kind of “big data” study can reveal new insights about what music people are listening to, it’s also important to look at the wider picture of how they listen.


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