Article image

The evolution of song lyrics: Less complexity and more emotion

Over the last four decades, the English-language music scene has witnessed a notable transformation in the complexity and emotional content of song lyrics. A recent study led by Eva Zangerle and her team at the University of Innsbruck focuses on this lyrical evolution.

The team analyzed 12,000 songs from genres such as rap, country, pop, R&B, and rock, spanning from 1980 to 2020. The research reveals a clear trend towards simpler, more repetitive lyrics, alongside an emotional deepening over time.

The study initially faced scrutiny due to a potential error in the coding used for analysis. The authors, however, remain confident in their main findings, acknowledging that minor aspects might be affected.

Corrections have been made to the press release to ensure accuracy, and updates will follow as the situation develops. The research team extends their apologies for any confusion caused.

Simplicity of song lyrics

Zangerle’s research points out a gradual simplification in the lyrics of English-language songs. This includes a noticeable decline in vocabulary diversity, which is especially significant in the rap and rock genres. This simplification is accompanied by an increase in lyrical repetitiveness across all examined genres.

The authors suggest a reason for these changes. They believe it reflects how we consume music today, with songs often playing in the background of our daily activities. This is a shift from the past, when music was more often the main focus of dedicated listening sessions.

A shift toward emotional song lyrics

Apart from the structural changes, the study also points out a shift towards more emotional and personal song lyrics over the years.

Rap songs, in particular, have seen an uptick in both positive and negative emotional expressions. Meanwhile, R&B, pop, and country genres have experienced an increase in the use of negatively charged lyrics, with all genres showing a rise in anger-related words.

This evolution indicates a broader trend of artists expressing more vivid emotional landscapes through their music.

Generational listening preferences

Further insights emerged from an analysis of lyric views on Genius, an online song lyric platform.

The data suggests a generational divide in listener preferences: older rock songs enjoy more views than their newer counterparts, indicating a nostalgia or preference for the lyrics of the past among rock enthusiasts.

Conversely, country music fans seem to engage more with the lyrics of newer songs, pointing to an evolving country music scene that resonates more with contemporary audiences.

Reflecting on four decades of music

The findings from this comprehensive study offer a fascinating glimpse into how song lyrics have transformed over the past 40 years, becoming simpler and more emotionally charged.

These trends not only reflect changes in music production and consumption but also hint at a deeper connection between artists and listeners through the power of words.

As the music landscape continues to evolve, the study of its lyrics offers invaluable insights into the cultural and emotional shifts within society.

Music in the mid to late 20th century

The 1950s to 1970s saw the rise of rock and roll, R&B, soul, and later, disco. Song lyrics increasingly dealt with social and political issues, reflecting the tumultuous times. Artists like Bob Dylan, The Beatles, and Marvin Gaye wrote songs that addressed war, civil rights, and personal freedom.

In the 1980s to 1990s, the emergence of genres like punk, hip-hop, and grunge brought new dimensions to songwriting. Punk and hip-hop, in particular, provided platforms for social commentary and rebellion against mainstream values. Lyrics became more explicit, addressing issues like poverty, inequality, and identity.

Music in the 21st century

The digital age has transformed music consumption, creation, and distribution. Genres have blended, and global influences have become more pronounced. 

Lyrics now traverse a wide range of themes from personal and introspective to social and global issues, reflecting the diversity of human experience in a connected world.

Evolution of song lyrics

Throughout their evolution, song lyrics have served as a mirror to society, reflecting cultural, social, and technological shifts. The medium has expanded from purely religious or ceremonial expressions to a broad canvas that encompasses the entire range of human emotion and experience.

The study is published in the journal Scientific Reports.


Like what you read? Subscribe to our newsletter for engaging articles, exclusive content, and the latest updates. 

Check us out on EarthSnap, a free app brought to you by Eric Ralls and


News coming your way
The biggest news about our planet delivered to you each day