2 Shades of Grey

Songs from the soundtrack of your life

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Happy songs don’t do well in charts – a sign of the times?

For eleven months last year the charts were dominated by sad songs in minor keys.

Songs in major keys had only short spells in the charts. Some, like songs by Clean Bandit, DJ Khaled, and Harry Styles, lasted only a week at the top.

And it’s not just the minor key. For the first time since 2002 the average bpm of number ones fell below 100.

The research, carried out by Popbitch website and published by the American Psychological Association, concluded that “popular music has, in general, become sadder-sounding over time with an increasing use of minor keys and slower tempo”.

Another study in 2011 found that “lyrics of popular music became more self-focussed and negative over time” with the number of minor songs doubling since the 1960s.

This may be partly due to a change in formats. Vinyl 78s could hold 3 minutes of music which led to a high number of bpm. Streaming (the curse of modern charts) allows an unlimited length of song or album and s reducing the number of songs making it to the top of the charts – only 14 last year.

Popbitch refers to a 2009 study by American researchers which found that “when social and economic times were relatively threatening, songs that were longer in duration, more meaningful in content, more comforting, more romantic, and slower, were most popular”.

This is not the first research lately to identify this shift. I posted last year about this


The power of music

dj_turntables_PA_500_wht_5381You will have read stories of people being awakened from comas when played their favourite music. A 5-year old girl in Burnley, Lancashire, was wakened from hers when she heard the James Blunt song “You’re Beautiful“. She’d been in a coma for 10 days after fracturing her skull in a fall from a balcony in 2006.

A 3-year old in Romford, Essex, was suffering from meningitis and woke up from  a 3-day coma singing one of her favourite songs by Abba,Mamma Mia”.

A 9-year old boy from South Wales was hit by a car on his birthday and was in a coma for 2 weeks until he heard “American Idiot” by Green Day.

Music has long been claimed to have therapeutic power and in religion chanting and singing create a meditative or uplifting state of mind. In these examples the music is influencing us at a pre-conscious level. See The Magical Power of Music

Music has also been shown to have powerful physical effects when combined with exercise. “If you co-ordinate your efforts with musical tempo or the rhythmic qualities of music then there will be a significant ergogenic or work-enhancing effect” says Dr Costas Karageorghis at Brunel University.

At low-to-moderate exercise intensities they have found a reduction in perceived exertion of 8-12% with carefully selected music. And when musical tempo is synchronised with work-rate you can increase endurance by up to 15%.

Perhaps this explains the practice of singing when marching or the origins of work songs in the plantations and elsewhere – music keeps you going longer and brings people together in a common cause. I’ve previously posted on the right kind of music to get you up and dancing.

Many elite athletes use music to create their own space and get into an aggressive mindset or to relax and focus their minds. See more on this here.

Picking the right songs is important says Dr Karageorghis, especially for non-elite athletes who might be less motivated than professionals. He suggests starting with songs at 120-140 bpm then building up to 140 bpm before taking it down to a resting heart-beat level of 70 bpm. FYI Keep on Running” by the Spencer Davis Group is 140 bpm.

And if you can tie in the exercise  precisely e.g. on a bike at 60 revolutions per minute using a song at 120 bpm, the results can be dramatic.

I’ve previously posted about the commercial impact of playing different types of music viz classical music in shops is associated with quality and leads to customers buying more expensive products.

Dr Adrian North at Heriot-Watt University says “virtually all aspects of consumer behaviour can be influenced by music“. Music can make us shop more quickly or more slowly and can influence us to increase the amount we spend or to make a venue seem more upmarket. The music connects with us and reminds us of meaningful things or things we have forgotten.

Market research (in 2010) showed than men and women have different preferences for music in relation to their consumer behaviour.

Artists that businesses were told men (aged 13 – 59) liked

  • The Beatles
  • Kings of Leon
  • Red Hot Chilli Peppers
  • Kaiser Chiefs
  • REM
  • Coldplay
  • Snow Patrol
  • Stereophonics
  • The Police

Artists that women (aged 13 – 59) preferred

  • Black Eyed Peas
  • Kings of Leon
  • Pink
  • Take That
  • Michael Jackson
  • The Beatles
  • Beyoncé
  • Bon Jovi
  • Robbie Williams
  • SnowPatrol

Does it work?

  1. Trials at a large fashion chain found that revenues rose by 2.5% when a playlist optimised for the target demographic group was played in its stores.
  2. A survey found that every 5 minutes the music played at a well-known UK women’s high street fashion chain encouraged 50% of shoppers to leave.
  3. A study in a supermarket found that when French music was played near a display of French and German wine the bottles of French wine outsold the German wine by 5 to 1.
  4. Given a choice 91% of people prefer a pub or bar that plays music.


And it’s not just people who are affected by music as it causes arousal in the brain. Cows give better milk yields when played slow music, dogs in  an animal rescue shelter were less distressed when played classical music but barked more when they heard heavy metal music.

Which reminds me of the stories about the CIA using loud music as a way of encouraging prisoners to collaborate. A BBC News report claimed that music by the American heavy metal band Metallica, and from children’s TV programs Barney and Sesame Street, was being used to cause sleep deprivation and culturally offend Iraqi prisoners.

And it was also used in the case of the Panamanian Dictator Noriega to get him to leave his sanctuary and surrender.  TheAmericans allegedly played hard rock music including Van Halen‘s “Panama” and broadcast the Howard Stern Show.

The United Nations and the European Court of Human Rights have banned the use of loud music in interrogations but US interrogation experts, while accepting that it causes discomfort, say it doesn’t cause long term effects.

To finish on a more positive note experts claim that listening to boy bands helps to keep you young!  I know it’s hard to believe but apparently listening to Westlife’s “Safe”, One Direction‘s “Midnight Memories“, Blue‘s “All Rise” and Take That’s “When we were Young” is recommended for their invigorating bounciness and the way the lyrics speak to the older generation.  I suppose they’re a bit more positive than the lyrics to “My Generation” by The Who!