How songs and lyrics have changed through the decades

middle aged woman and young girl listening to music with headphones

Music is such a powerful tool when it comes to influencing emotions. Catching a certain song on the radio can make you laugh, cry or transport you back in time almost instantly.

I think you can learn a lot about someone by delving into what they listen to, if they’re willing to open up and share a meaningful playlist with you that is. 

From Elvis Presley, Fats Domino and Ray Charles in the 1960s to The Weeknd, Cardi B and Billie Eilish today, the top musicians have certainly transformed over the years.

Every generation seems to poke fun at the next generation’s music taste. Although I loved listening to Thunder, Meatloaf and Extreme with my dad in the car when I was a kid, he was less enthused when I started asking to play Taylor Swift and The Veronicas as a teenager.

Read: Study shows how music boosts brain activity

The music and songs that become popular are a huge representation of our values and what society deems acceptable or even enjoyable as a whole. Even though I find myself cringing at Cardi B, she has now surpassed 500 million streams on Spotify and is the fourth most listened to female rapper so far in 2022, so some people out there obviously find her enjoyable. But with lyrics such as:

“Motorsport, yeah, put that thing in sport (skrrt, skrrt)

Shawty bad (bad), pop her like a cork (pop it)

You a dork, never been a sport (dork, yeah)

Pull up (woo, woo), jumpin’ out the court (court, jump)”

I’m not even that sure what her songs are about, but maybe that’s more of a conversation to have around how much slang has changed over the years.

So, as music styles and genres change over time, how do the lyrics change too?

To find out how lyrics have evolved throughout the generations, looked at more than 35,000 songs from seven decades, spanning from the 1950s to the 2010s. Looking at words relating to the four key categories of love, swearing, sex, and money, they compared the songs in each decade to determine how lyrical trends have changed over time.

Read: How music can boost your wellbeing

Love songs

Probably unsurprisingly to most, the subject of love has remained by far the most popular lyrical category throughout the generations.

From the romantic innocence of the early Beatles singles to the heartbreak ballads of Adele, love has remained an inescapable subject throughout music history.

Although lyrics inspired by love are by far the most popular category, there has been a steady decline in their use since the 1950s, when they appeared in 88.13 per cent of the songs covered in the study. While the 1960s may have been responsible for the ‘Summer of Love’, this did not prevent a decline of nearly 4 per cent in romantic lyrics from the previous decade.

There was a sharp decline in love lyrics in the ’70s with more bold musical movements such as punk and heavy metal gaining popularity. Romantic language in songs dropped from 84.53 per cent in the ’60s to 75.93 per cent in the ’70s.

The first two decades of the new millennium have seen no dramatic shifts, with scores of 73.33 per cent and 73.53 per cent indicating that the popularity of love songs may be starting to level out.

Read: Classical music a soothing tonic

Explicit lyrics found that the category increasing the most is swear words, which are more than twice as common now as they were in the 1950s.

Finally, when it comes to lyric sentiments, lyrics of a negative nature are now much more popular. 42 per cent of 2010s’ song lyrics are negative, compared to under a third (30 per cent) in the 1950s – an increase of 12 per cent.

In terms of positive lyrics, we’re currently sitting at just over half (56 per cent) – a 13 per cent decrease since the 1950s.

So, overall, it seems that music styles may be gaining tempo and getting more upbeat, but the lyrics are sadder, sexier and full of swear words. What does that say about society today?

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Written by Ellie Baxter

Writer and editor with interests in travel, health, wellbeing and food. Has knowledge of marketing psychology, social media management and is a keen observer and commentator on issues facing older Australians.

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