Pop Music Is Speeding Up – And Getting More Positive!

Jul 22, 2020

It’s not just you. Pop music is, in fact, getting faster – and yes – happier too.

Although we’re not exactly living in the happiest of times, and you might not feel like dancing around your living room right now, but the world of pop music is definitely getting more upbeat. This is supported by statistics that show more and more tracks are becoming filled to the brim with joyful, life-affirming lyrics and messages.

And right along with this unexpected lightheartedness, these pop songs are also getting faster in tempo, with the top 20 best-selling songs of 2020 averaging a tempo of about 122 beats per minute. According to BBC News, that’s the highest tempo average since 2009, and is very different from the trends we’ve been seeing in recent years.

For the last several years, pop has actually been getting slower, with artists like Ariana Grande and Billie Eilish mixing in the more leisurely sounds and rhythms of southern hip-hop and trap music into their hits.

As a matter of fact, just 3 years ago, in 2017, University of California Irvine mathematician Natalia Komarova was shocked by the dark and gloomy nature of her family’s favourite pop songs. Singers like Adele and Sam Smith where pulling on the heartstrings of fans. She decided to look into the trend more closely.

The Rise of the Sad Hit

Drawing from the music research database AcousticBrainz, Komarova and her team examined around half a million tracks released in the UK between 1985 and 2015. Specifically, they looked at considerations like danceablity, tonality, tempo, and mood, while also looking into each song’s popularity and focusing on the dynamics of the chart-topping hits.

What she found confirmed her earlier hypothesis. Her findings, published in 2018 in Royal Society Open Science, showed that pop music was indeed showing a downward trend in “happiness” and “brightness,” with a slight upward turn in “sadness.”

Other factors, however, like “relaxedness” and “danceability” also showed an interesting increase over the 30 years the team studied. This trend the authors suggest could be related to the “increase in ‘electronic’ and ‘atonal’ characteristics.”

According to the results of the study:

It was found that the use of positive emotion in songs had dwindled over time.

In particular, it was reported that popular music lyrics now include more words related to a focus on the self (e.g. singular first person pronouns), fewer words describing companionship and social contact (e.g. plural first person nouns) and more anti-social words (e.g. ‘hate’, ‘kill’, etc.).

By 2017, the average tempo of a popular hit song in the UK was about 104 beats per minute – a drop from the high of 124 bpm in 2009. Interestingly, in the US, where hip-hop is more prevalent and popular, the average bpm dropped to as low as 90.5.

“People were burnt out on uptempo, super poppy stuff like they were with hair-metal bands back in the say,” songwriter Bonnie McKee told Rolling Stone Magazine in 2017. “Then as the sociopolitical climate got darker, people just weren’t in the mood to hear some upbeat bop.”

But just three years later, all of that has changed.

“Permission to access joy, even with the world is burning.”

“I’m looking at the top 20 now and, if you were to play the chart in order, you wouldn’t think the world is going through a crisis,” says pop star Raye, who has experience writing both for herself, and for the likes of Beyonce, Little Mix and Stormzy.

“You would expect political or emotional music matching the aura of the time to be more prevalent, but it’s actually the opposite – which shows how we’re coping in the UK especially.

“Tempo, pace, escapism: Music that draws you out of the reality of what is going on right now; and transports you to somewhere more positive and uplifting.”

And she isn’t alone in this sentiment. Music journalist Charlie Harding agrees, saying there has been “and important psychological change” in many people’s listening habits.

“During moments of great distress, music provides hope. A pop song gives us permission to access joy, even when the world is burning.

“But music is more than just escapism. It can help us imagine a different way of life. Protest anthems motivate us to keep marching in the streets even when our feet are tired. Dance songs help us blow off steam at home, especially when we can’t go dancing out on the town.

“This upbeat shift happened during the great depression and during World War Two. Once again we need sounds that help us forge a path to the world we want to live in, not the one we’re inhabiting today.”

That final point is both interesting and important – because this new wave of uptempo pop music wasn’t actually written for the strange and uncertain circumstances 2020 has presented the world with – it just happened to be there at the right time.

Make Your Own Joy

One of the most amazing things about music is that you can take these interesting insights into music, and use them for yourself! If you’ve ever wanted to learnt o play a musical instrument, now is the perfect time! The Music Studio is offering tons of online and in person classes for the entire orchestra, for all ages and skill levels!

You can learn your favourite pop songs, and experiment with different tempos and how they impact human emotions and experiences in so many ways.

Sign up today, it’s never too late!