Why are song lyrics becoming simpler? a time series analysis of lyrical complexity in six decades of American popular music

Michael E.W. Varnum, Jaimie Arona Krems, Colin Morris, Alexandra Wormley, Igor Grossmann

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

1 Scopus citations

Abstract

Song lyrics are rich in meaning. In recent years, the lyrical content of popular songs has been used as an index of culture’s shifting norms, affect, and values. One particular, newly uncovered, trend is that lyrics of popular songs have become increasingly simple over time. Why might this be? Here, we test the idea that increasing lyrical simplicity is accompanied by a widening array of novel song choices. We do so by using six decades (1958–2016) of popular music in the United States (N = 14,661 songs), controlling for multiple well-studied ecological and cultural factors plausibly linked to shifts in lyrical simplicity (e.g., resource availability, pathogen prevalence, rising individualism). In years when more novel song choices were produced, the average lyrical simplicity of the songs entering U.S. billboard charts was greater. This cross-temporal relationship was robust when controlling for a range of cultural and ecological factors and employing multiverse analyses to control for potentially confounding influence of temporal autocorrelation. Finally, simpler songs entering the charts were more successful, reaching higher chart positions, especially in years when more novel songs were produced. The present results suggest that cultural transmission depends on the amount of novel choices in the information landscape.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Article numbere0244576
JournalPloS one
Volume16
Issue number1
DOIs
StatePublished - Jan 2021
Externally publishedYes

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • General

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