Researchers find the key to why today's pop seems so glum

Sad songs, as Elton John so presciently suggested all the way back in 1984, say so much. Elton – or, more accurately, his lyricist Bernie Taupin – was clearly on to something: they have increasingly become the prevailing musical currency. Where once we revelled in the unambiguous joys of thrilling pop songs, we now prefer them as bleak and miserable as the average British summer.

This is no mere conjecture. Psychologists have, albeit in inverted commas, proved it. A study from the universities of Toronto and Berlin has concluded that songs have indeed become progressively sadder over the past 50 years, both in tempo and mood. Its analysis of the most popular 1,000 songs since 1965 has revealed that, with each passing decade, the biggest hits have become more lugubrious and reflective. In the 1960s, 85 per cent of songs were written in a major key; today it's just 42 per cent – and, of course, the more minor the key, the sadder it sounds. Meanwhile, today's average song speed is a listless 100 beats per minute compared with 116 five decades ago.

There is a reason for this, according to the report's co- author E Glenn Schellenberg. "People like to think they are smart," he suggests. "And unambiguously happy-sounding music has come, over time, to sound more like a cliché. People have come to appreciate sadness and ambiguity more. Life is more complicated, and they want the things that they consume as pleasure to be similarly complex."

What he means, essentially, is that The xx, who are a Mercury Prize-winning group of catastrophically somnambulant disposition, could only ever be selling records in 2012. It's been a seismic shift. Where the carefree days of the 1960s were accompanied by the exclamatory pop songs of The Beatles, the 1970s by Abba's life-affirming kitsch, and the 1980s by Wham!'s silly ebullience, such frippery has now officially gone into recession, replaced by, frankly, the doom and gloom merchants.

Take grunge, which in the 1990s killed the happy hedonism of heavy metal and replaced it with stomach-ulcered angst. Then, soon after, Radiohead removed the posturing from British rock altogether in favour of post-millennial tension, and a deliberate absence of melody. (And when The Darkness tried to put it back, we all laughed, quickly discarding them.)

Even dance music has been affected. Kanye West, hip hop's best advert for extrovert living and monomaniacal arrogance, delivered, in 2008, an album called 808s & Heartbreak in which he sounded all but suicidal. West recovered, but later collaborated with US folkie Bon Iver, a man who is to happiness what Night Nurse is to clubbers.

The virus has spread. One of the most celebrated artists of the year is Lana del Rey, an American beauty as melancholic as an octogenarian on her deathbed lamenting lost love. Coldplay have taken their maudlin anthems – the slower, the more effective – into stadiums worldwide. Adele has reinvented the power ballad. And how else to explain the preponderance of Damien Rice covers on The X Factor? TV talent shows are surely places for joyful plastic pop, not the navel-gazings of either Rice or, for that matter, Leonard Cohen, whose magisterial "Hallelujah" was 2008's X Factor winner Alexandra Burke's winning single.

But "Hallelujah" was chosen for good reason: the show's producers realised, like Professor Schellenberg, that we are all in the grip of our own existential crises these days, worried about our lives, the economy, the Premiership. And we want our inner pain articulated by those who do it better than we ever could – even on Saturday-night telly.

Of course, there will always be exceptions to the rule, and pop can still bring uncomplicated joy. The authors of the research cite Lady Gaga, for example, whose single "Born This Way", they say, "sounds fresh, recalling popular music from an earlier time".

And there are further anomalies to remind us that pop doesn't have to be exclusively morose. Take Psy, quite possibly the happiest South Korean who ever lived, and surely the only South Korean to score a UK top-three hit. His single "Gangnam Style" is a nonsensical global smash, a proper pop song that, in this current climate, is practically alone in shining a light at the end of a very long tunnel.

But, don't worry, Psy's a flash in the pan, clearly. Normal, glum service will be resumed shortly.

Arts and Entertainment
Legendary blues and rock singer Joe Cocker has died of lung cancer, his management team as confirmed. He was 70
music The singer has died aged 70
Arts and Entertainment
Maisie Williams looks concerned as Arya Stark
tv
Arts and Entertainment
photography Incredible images show London's skyline from its highest points
Arts and Entertainment
'Silent Night' last topped Classic FM's favourite Christmas carol poll in 2002
classical
Arts and Entertainment
Caroline Flack became the tenth winner of Strictly Come Dancing
tv 'Absolutely phenomenal' Xtra Factor presenter wins Strictly Come Dancing final
PROMOTED VIDEO
Arts and Entertainment
Rhys says: 'I'm not playing it for laughs, but I have learnt that if you fall over on stage, people can enjoy that as much as an amazing guitar solo'
musicGruff Rhys on his rock odyssey, and the trouble with independence
Arts and Entertainment
Krysia and Daniel (Hand out press photograph provided by Sally Richardson)
How do today's composers answer the challenge of the classical giant?
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

ebooks
News
Shenaz Treasurywala
film
News
tv
Arts and Entertainment
Jason Watkins as Christopher Jefferies
tv
Arts and Entertainment
Star Wars Director JJ Abrams: key character's names have been revealed
film
Arts and Entertainment
Pharrell Williams won two BBC Music Awards for Best Song and International Artist
music
Arts and Entertainment
Mark, Katie and Sanjay in The Apprentice boardroom
TV
Arts and Entertainment

Film The critics but sneer but these unfashionable festive films are our favourites

Arts and Entertainment
Frances O'Connor and James Nesbitt in 'The Missing'

TV We're so close to knowing what happened to Oliver Hughes, but a last-minute bluff crushes expectations

Arts and Entertainment
Joey Essex will be hitting the slopes for series two of The Jump

TV

Who is taking the plunge?
Arts and Entertainment
Katy Perry as an Ancient Egyptian princess in her latest music video for 'Dark Horse'

music
Arts and Entertainment
Dame Judi Dench, as M in Skyfall

film
Arts and Entertainment
Morrissey, 1988

TV
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    Isis in Iraq: Yazidi girls killing themselves to escape rape and imprisonment by militants

    'Jilan killed herself in the bathroom. She cut her wrists and hanged herself'

    Yazidi girls killing themselves to escape rape and imprisonment
    Ed Balls interview: 'If I think about the deficit when I'm playing the piano, it all goes wrong'

    Ed Balls interview

    'If I think about the deficit when I'm playing the piano, it all goes wrong'
    He's behind you, dude!

    US stars in UK panto

    From David Hasselhoff to Jerry Hall
    Grace Dent's Christmas Quiz: What are you – a festive curmudgeon or top of the tree?

    Grace Dent's Christmas Quiz

    What are you – a festive curmudgeon or top of the tree?
    Nasa planning to build cloud cities in airships above Venus

    Nasa planning to build cloud cities in airships above Venus

    Planet’s surface is inhospitable to humans but 30 miles above it is almost perfect
    Surrounded by high-rise flats is a little house filled with Lebanon’s history - clocks, rifles, frogmen’s uniforms and colonial helmets

    Clocks, rifles, swords, frogmen’s uniforms

    Surrounded by high-rise flats is a little house filled with Lebanon’s history
    Return to Gaza: Four months on, the wounds left by Israel's bombardment have not yet healed

    Four months after the bombardment, Gaza’s wounds are yet to heal

    Kim Sengupta is reunited with a man whose plight mirrors the suffering of the Palestinian people
    Gastric surgery: Is it really the answer to the UK's obesity epidemic?

    Is gastric surgery really the answer to the UK's obesity epidemic?

    Critics argue that it’s crazy to operate on healthy people just to stop them eating
    Homeless Veterans appeal: Christmas charity auction Part 2 - now LIVE

    Homeless Veterans appeal: Christmas charity auction

    Bid on original art, or trips of a lifetime to Africa or the 'Corrie' set, and help Homeless Veterans
    Pantomime rings the changes to welcome autistic theatre-goers

    Autism-friendly theatre

    Pantomime leads the pack in quest to welcome all
    The week Hollywood got scared and had to grow up a bit

    The week Hollywood got scared and had to grow up a bit

    Sony suffered a chorus of disapproval after it withdrew 'The Interview', but it's not too late for it to take a stand, says Joan Smith
    From Widow Twankey to Mother Goose, how do the men who play panto dames get themselves ready for the performance of a lifetime?

    Panto dames: before and after

    From Widow Twankey to Mother Goose, how do the men who play panto dames get themselves ready for the performance of a lifetime?
    Thirties murder mystery novel is surprise runaway Christmas hit

    Thirties murder mystery novel is surprise runaway Christmas hit

    Booksellers say readers are turning away from dark modern thrillers and back to the golden age of crime writing
    Anne-Marie Huby: 'Charities deserve the best,' says founder of JustGiving

    Anne-Marie Huby: 'Charities deserve the best'

    Ten million of us have used the JustGiving website to donate to good causes. Its co-founder says that being dynamic is as important as being kind
    The botanist who hunts for giant trees at Kew Gardens

    The man who hunts giants

    A Kew Gardens botanist has found 25 new large tree species - and he's sure there are more out there