Studies have demonstrated that song lyrics are reflective in key ways of the generation that produced them. A shift in focus in song lyrics from the 1980s to 2007, for example, shows that popular songs were increasingly self-focused and decreasingly other-focused. But what could explain a steady simplification of song lyrics over the last six decades? Are newer generations simply less concerned with complexity in songwriting?
This question prompted a team of American and Canadian psychologists to examine a variety of ecological, cultural, and technical factors over the last 60 years. The authors, whose work is published in PLoS ONE, gathered information on resource scarcity, levels of infectious disease, external threats (e.g., climate or war), immigration, conservatism, collectivism, GDP per capita, GDP growth, unemployment, ethnic heterogeneity, residential mobility, and population size.
Lyrical simplicity was measured via compressibility. The same algorithms that compress computer files (e.g., into a Zip file) can be used as a measure of simplicity. Such algorithms search files (or songs) for repeated elements (like a chorus), and replace them with a throwback to the element’s first appearance. The greater the level of compression, the greater the number of repeated elements in the file (or song), and thus the lower its complexity.
Their results indicate that, while a variety of ecological and cultural factors may have played contributing roles to the observed trend, the greatest influencer of statistical significance was the number of new songs coming out each year. That is, when more songs are available, listeners tend to prefer simpler songs.
The effect seems to be self-reinforcing, such that simpler songs enjoy greater and greater success as the volume of novel songs produced increased in a given year.
The authors conclude by offering a number of explanations for why lyrical simplicity might thrive during periods of increased song novel song choice, including greater exposure to song elements (through repetition), conservation of mental resources, and a preference for cognitively forgiving products when faced with a great number to choose from.
The authors note a few limitations, including the fact that their data should in no way be interpreted as causal. This is important, as one question that immediately arises from their findings is whether we may simply produce more songs when simplicity is preferred, by virtue of the fact that they are, by definition, less costly in time and money to produce.
Nonetheless, their findings are culturally and psychologically intriguing, and will help future researchers to better understand how the cultural productions of a society are reflective of its fundamental and shared psychology.
The study, “Why are song lyrics becoming simpler? a time series analysis of lyrical complexity in six decades of American popular music“, was authored by Michael E. W. Varnum, Jaimie Arona Krems, Colin Morris, Alexandra Wormley, and Igor Grossmann.