Another possible explanation for the changes in popular music is that the more contemporary music reflects the hardships and tragedies that our society has endured. For example, Terry F. Pettijohn II and his colleagues have shown that popular songs tend to be longer and slower during times of economic or social difficulties. However, Schellenberg and von Scheve believe that the steady increase in duration and decrease in tempo that they found in their study doesn’t support the idea of growing difficulties fully because it would mean our problems have increased steadily over the last fifty years.
Perhaps popular songs have become more complex over time because Americans are becoming more diverse and individualized in their musical tastes. For example, as globalization increases exposure to foreign artists who might not have entered American awareness years ago, we absorb and are inspired by their new sounds.
Though we can only speculate on the specific causes of this evolution in music, we can still view society’s preferences as a metric of the public consciousness. Maybe the reason South Korean rapper PSY’s infectious “Gangnam Style” went viral in 2012 is because we needed a little light-heartedness and a dose of fun in the face of disturbing world events beyond our immediate control (economic crisis, that means you). Schellenberg and von Scheve stress that their initial observations have only opened the door to inquiries on the link between emotion and music consumption. Perhaps someday we’ll learn more of the secrets behind the music we love and the times we live in.
Are you a scientist who specializes in neuroscience, cognitive science, or psychology? And have you read a recent peer-reviewed paper that you would like to write about? Please send suggestions to Mind Matters editor Gareth Cook, a Pulitzer prize-winning journalist at the Boston Globe. He can be reached at garethideas AT gmail.com or Twitter @garethideas.