It was Elton John’s idea — okay, technically Bernie Taupin’s, though it took John to reify it — that when you’re feeling down in the dumps, those old, depressing songs actually help.
Which may or may not explain why so many more of them are being written these days:
Researchers from Canada and Germany report pop music recordings have become progressively more “sad-sounding” over time, as characterized by slower tempos and increased use of minor mode — that is, scales that evoke the same feelings one experiences when pondering orphan puppies or long-weekend gas prices.
The study found the proportion of minor-mode songs has fully doubled since the mid-1960s.
And this shift is apparently in response to popular demand:
“Many people assume pop music is banal in its happiness. But most songs now are actually in minor key,” says lead author Glenn Schellenberg, a professor of psychology at the University of Toronto. “Composers write in minor because it sounds smarter on some levels, and more complicated. And consumers like it for the same reason — although I don’t think that’s conscious.”
For some of them it might be, though I’m pretty sure I knew nothing from key signatures when I discovered pop radio by way of Del Shannon’s “Runaway,” which was written in A minor, though the recording comes out closer to B-flat, suggesting that the producers sped up the tape just a little, a common practice in the early 1960s.
There is, of course, precedent from days gone by:
“The baroque and classical eras were consistent in terms of their cues to happiness and sadness: faster pieces tended to be major and slower pieces tended to be minor,” says Schellenberg, recalling the musical periods between 1600 and 1820. “But in the Romantic era [1820 to 1900] that switched, creating mixed emotional cues.”
And I do love my mixed emotional cues.
The study is being published in the journal Psychology of Aesthetics, Creativity and the Arts. Despite the fact that it’s Sunday, I think I’ll go crank up Rebecca Black’s “Friday,” which, not incidentally, is in B major, so sunny a key you might not want to walk on it.