A recent study by Glenn Schellenberg that analyzes* over five decades of Billboard charts confirms that pop is losing its twinkle. Far more of today’s hits are in minor keys (which most of us hear as sadder or more complex)—more than half, as compared to just 15% in the 1960s.
What’s happening here? Alice Cooper, heavy metal icon turned radio host thinks songwriter ego is at play. “Bands that want to sound like they’re deep and serious cannot play in major keys—they want to go to minor keys to make them sound more mysterious. I think that we have really gotten away from the fun of rock music and we’ve gotten too emotional about it.” Fair enough. But what's underneath the trend?
I'd like to argue it's just another example of art imitating life. Every generation gravitates toward its vibe--the sounds that echo an inner experience for listeners.
Either way, the beat goes on, albeit in a minor key.
*The pattern-recognition study appears in the Journal of Psychology of Aesthetics, Creativity, and the Arts. (August 2012, Volume 6, Page 196-203)