Top of the pops or down in the dumps? How music matches the national mood

The musical beat matches the tempo of the era, says a new study that analyses nearly 60 years of music. Roger Dobson and Katy Corr report

Another day older and deeper in debt? Then the odds are you'll want to listen to something slow and in a sombre key, US researchers claim. When times are tough it seems that a mournful Lionel Richie trumps a shook-up Elvis, according to an analysis of nearly six decades of chart hits. Pop songs in a recession have fewer beats per minute than when the economy has its dancing shoes on.

"In bad social and economic times people prefer slower pop songs and tunes in less common keys," according to new research published in the journal Current Psychology. "When times are good people like faster pop songs in more common keys. Upbeat songs in standard keys, such as 'I'm a Believer' or Elvis Presley's 'All Shook Up', were popular in relatively good times compared with slow, reflective music in non-standard keys, such as Lionel Richie's 'Say You, Say Me' or Bryan Adams's '(Everything I Do) I Do It for You', which were popular when times were relatively bad," according to Coastal Carolina University. Researchers there analysed No 1 hits since 1955 and compared them to measures including unemployment, prices, wages and death rates. Results show clear links. In the good economic times, the tempo of the No 1 hit increased, and in bad times it went down. The range of keys used also went up in recessions.

The researchers suggest chart success has less to do with pop moguls such as Simon Cowell and more to do with a hypothesis that links people's sense of security with their social preferences.

"Threatening conditions lead people to focus on security and safety needs and, therefore, social stimuli related to more meaningful and mature themes should be preferred to help reduce threat and uncertainty," says Dr Terry Pettijohn, who led the study. "When conditions are less threatening, fun and celebration would be preferred as the emphasis is no longer on reducing and managing threats. These patterns of preferences can be related to the tempo and tone of songs. Slower pop songs generally have more reflective and serious themes while faster pop songs written for celebration generally have less important messages and less serious themes."

Good times

1955: 'Cherry Pink and Apple Blossom White', Perez Prado

Prime Minister Sir Anthony Eden is elected (Conservative).

Unemployment is relatively low at 215,000, or just 1% of the workforce.

1958: 'At the Hop', Danny and the Juniors

Peter Thorneycroft resigns as Chancellor of the Exchequer.

Preston Bypass opens.

Construction begins on M1 motorway.

1963: 'Sugar Shack', Jimmy Gilmer and the Fireballs

Harold Macmillan leaves office.

Sir Alec Douglas-Home (Conservative) becomes PM.

1966: 'I'm a Believer', The Monkees

Barclays Bank introduces Britain's first credit card.

Pickles the dog finds missing World Cup.

1979: 'My Sharona', The Knack

James Callaghan leaves office.

Margaret Thatcher (Conservative) is elected Prime Minister.

1984: 'Like a Virgin', Madonna

FTSE Index 100 starts.

1996: 'Macarena', Los Del Rio

Genetically modified food goes on sale in UK.

2003: 'In Da Club', 50 Cent

British soldiers land in Afghanistan.

2004:'I'm a Slave 4 U', Britney Spears

Scottish Parliament building opens.

2005: 'Don't Cha', Pussycat Dolls

Office of National Statistics reports unemployment is at 813,300, the lowest in 30 years.

Bad times

1962: 'I Can't Stop Loving You', Ray Charles

First legal casino opens in Brighton.

'Big Freeze' takes hold of Britain.

1970: 'Bridge Over Troubled Water' Simon and Garfunkel

Harold Wilson leaves office.

Edward Heath (Conservative) is elected Prime Minister.

1977: 'You Light Up My Life', Debby Boone

Firefighters go on national strike.

Undertakers go on strike.

1983: 'Every Breath You Take', The Police

Pound coin is introduced.

Protests over nuclear weapons.

1989: 'Another Day in Paradise', Phil Collins

Channel Tunnel workers go on strike.

London Tube workers go on strike.

Ambulance workers go on strike.

Hillsborough disaster takes place; 96 fans die.

1991: '(Everything I Do) I Do It for You', Bryan Adams

Gulf War begins.

Bank of Credit and Commerce International closes amid fraud allegations.

1997: 'Candle in the Wind (1997)', Elton John

Princess Diana dies in a car crash in Paris.

2001: 'Hanging By a Moment', Lifehouse

Foot and mouth disease spreads.

Anti-capitalist demonstrations in London.

2007: 'Back to Black', Amy Winehouse

Tony Blair departs.

2008: 'Love Story', Taylor Swift

Government takes emergency legislation to nationalise Northern Rock – recession follows.

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