Musicians develop musical styles at specific times and within a specific cultural context much like the field of advertising.
In a new study, titled "All You Need is Love? Communication Insights from Pop Music’s Number-One Hits," published in the Journal of Advertising Research, researchers identified 12 key themes, and related terms, that came up most often in the hit songs.
The research, led by Professor David Henard from North Carolina State University, involved computer analysis of the lyrics to nearly 1000 songs from Billboard magazine's "Hot 100" song list between January 1960 and December 2009. The researchers used computer programs to run textual analysis of the lyrics for all of those songs and analyzed the results to identify key themes.
The influential words found in the analysis of Billboard #1 songs by decade were:
In the 1960s: Love, quantity, baby, female name, time, man, good, girl, heart, night
In the 1970s: Love, quantity, girl good, baby, man, night, way, time, eye
In the 1980s: Love, quantity, baby, time, night, heart, man, eye, way, life
In the 1990s: Quantity, baby, love, way, man, time, girl, dance, life, night
In the 2000s: Quantity, baby, girl, way, man, time, good, nigga, love, boy
The 12 key themes found in the study were:
Loss, desire, aspiration, breakup, pain, inspiration, nostalgia, rebellion, jaded, desperation, escapism and confusion.
"These themes overwhelmingly reflect emotional content, rather than rational content," Henard says. "It reinforces the idea that communications centered on emotional themes will have mass audience appeal."
Below is a list with examples of songs and commercials that represent these key themes as well as their keywords and associated descriptors.
Associated Descriptors: Sadness, heartache, losing, love, loneliness, unrealized romance
Keywords: Heart, love, apart, lonely, leaving, feeling
Personal loss was a dominant theme in the 1980s and 1990s—decades that were generally viewed as times of personal abundance in the United States.
Associated Descriptors: Longing, wanting, anticipation, lust, coveting.
Keywords: Move, tonight, baby, body, trying, dance.
Associated Descriptors: Dreams, other-worldly, longing, anticipation, hope
Keywords: Dream, heaven, tonight, moon, move, world
According to the research, the aspiration theme was quite popular in the 1980s and declined in the 1990s with a slight increase in the 2000s.
Associated Descriptors: Out of love, loss, separation, goodbye, person-specific
Keywords: Waiting, time, leaving, tear, goodbye, lonely
The “breakup” theme appears to be used regularly and with less fluctuation across decades than the other themes. This could either indicate that, outside of the 1960s and 1970s “breakup” is a relatively under-represented lyrical theme or that it is a theme that is constantly represented among commercially successful lyrics and not as subject to temporal or environmental fluctuations as are the other primary themes.
Associated Descriptors: Pain, mixed emotions, in the moment, sadness, change, goodbye
Keywords: Bad, good, goodbye, kiss, moment, woman
The "pain" theme was almost non-existent before the 1980s and declined in the 1990s. It is presently the most popular theme, along with "desperation" in the 2000s.
Associated Descriptors: Optimism, energetic, vibrancy, dancing, connectedness
Keywords: Life, everything, music, good, world, dancing
The Billboard hit from 1977, “You Light Up My Life” by Debby Boone, and the famous Coca-Cola “Hilltop - I’d Like to Buy the World a Coke” commercial from 1971 and the Apple, iPad Air television ad, “Your Verse” express the inspirational theme.
The inspiration was hardly used before 2000 with a brief increase in the 1990s. It is currently at break-out levels this year.
Associated Descriptors: Romantic, oneness, togetherness, dreamy, idealistic
Keywords: Feeling, morning, woman, heart, time, heaven
The “nostalgia” theme stands distinct from the other primary themes in the 1970s, and yet it decreases in usage until the 2000s.
Associated Descriptors: Rebellious, counter culture, Rock ’n’ Roll, music
Keywords: Favorite, Sunday, playing, city, rock, radio
The research showed there was a substantial fluctuation in the use of the "rebellion theme" across the 50 years, which indicates that its use was closely tied to environmental cues.
Associated Descriptors: Reflective, jaded, cynicism, trapped, contemplative
Keywords: State, Favorite, mirror, Sunday, heavy, jet
The jaded theme had a major boost in the early 1980s and briefly in the 1990s.
Associated Descriptors: Helpless, trapped, desperate, cornered, coveting
Keywords: Corner, throw, line, guess, promise, stupid
The “Desperation” theme generally is underrepresented until the 2000s, where it dominates. This is reminiscent of the patterns exhibited by the primary themes of “Pain” and “Desire” and could track closely to the post-9/11 social environment.
Associated Descriptors: Fantasy, escape, ecstasy, love as a drug, sex,
Keywords: Deal, ecstasy, flying, inside, question, grooving
The escapism theme appeared in the 1990s with the desperation theme following in the 2000s. It could be that those periods of time where individuals are searching for escape and fantasy are followed by periods where they feel trapped and helpless.
Associated Descriptors: Distant, Memories, Pointless, Secrets
Keywords: Memory, Suitcase, Circle, View, Secret, Magic
Both loss and confusion were the dominant themes in the 1980s according to the study.