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Country music is happy in bad times, sad in good times

Country artist Tim McGraw performs onstage during ACM Presents: An All-Star Salute To The Troops at the MGM Grand Garden Arena on April 7, 2014 in Las Vegas, Nevada.
Country artist Tim McGraw performs onstage during ACM Presents: An All-Star Salute To The Troops at the MGM Grand Garden Arena on April 7, 2014 in Las Vegas, Nevada.
Ethan Miller/Getty Images for ACM
Dylan Matthews is a senior correspondent and head writer for Vox's Future Perfect section and has worked at Vox since 2014. He is particularly interested in global health and pandemic prevention, anti-poverty efforts, economic policy and theory, and conflicts about the right way to do philanthropy.

Country music last year, as a popular compilation video pointed out, focused like a laser on a few shared themes: pickup trucks, dirt roads on which to ride those pickup trucks, girls to ride with in the aforementioned pickup trucks, jeans for the girls riding in the pickup trucks to wear, a river bank to drive to with the jean-clad girls in the previously noted pickup trucks, sunsets and moonlight to set the mood on the river bank for the singers and the jean-clad girls, and alcohol to loosen up the singers and jean-clad girls:

Grady Smith, the country music critic who made that video, was picking up on a real phenomenon. There's evidence suggesting that country embraces upbeat themes in bad times (which, given how far the economy still has to go to recover, 2013 may qualify as). According to new research in the journal Psychology of Popular Media Culture, the lyrical themes, tempos, and even chord usage of popular country songs tracks what's happening in the country as a whole, only in reverse. In good times, popular country songs tend to be slower and more morose, and use more minor chords. In bad times, they get celebratory and make heavier use of major chords. Country music is, as economist Tyler Cowen puts it, countercyclical.

What they found

The researchers behind the study, Coastal Carolina University's Terry Pettijohn and Southern Mississippi's Donald Sacco, take as their dataset the Billboard country songs of the year from 1946 to 2008. They used text analysis software, and manual chord analysis and tempo measurement, to identify lyrical themes and musical properties of the songs. They then compared their findings to an index measuring the overall well-being of society, using indicators like unemployment, inflation, personal income growth, the suicide and homicide rates, the divorce rate, and so forth.

Pettijohn and Sacco have done similar studies on pop music as a whole, and concluded that it tracks societal health in some predictable ways. In good times, pop songs features happier, more positive lyrics, are faster, and use more familiar key signatures and major chords. In bad times, their mood gets more reflective, they slow they, and they make more use of unfamiliar key signatures and minor chords.

They found opposite patterns in country. "Country lyrics are less likely to express negative emotions in bad times," Pettijohn and Sacco write. "They're likelier to use major chords, and they speed up significantly."

What the problems are

It's important to be skeptical of this kind of study, however. The number one country songs list is a rather limited dataset, and while it's understandable that the researchers wouldn't want to laboriously hand-code hundreds of country songs, taking down their exactly beats-per-minute and chord structure, a smaller sample does increase the risk of generating significant-seeming findings out of flukes.

To take one example, the fact that Roberta Flack's slow, reflective "Killing Me Softly With His Song" came out in 1973, as the crime and inflation rates were rising and a recession was beginning, could be evidence for Pettijohn and Sacco's hypothesis about pop songs, or it could just be that Flack was particularly popular with audiences at the time for other reasons. She also had the top song in 1972, for one thing. With a large sample, a single data point like that might not be enough to change the overall conclusion, but with a dataset this small, every point matters, and so the risk of an omitted factor generating faulty conclusions is higher.

The researchers also concede that some of the measures they use are simplistic. "Because we used simplistic indicators to explore a new area of research, future studies might incorporate a complex analysis of song indicators, like those that assess the melody, rhythm, ordering of chords within a song, and even the way these song properties (and many others not listed) interact to further reveal the nuanced ways musical-expressed emotions relate to the socioeconomic context," they write. Those variables are even harder to record, and trying to add them to the simpler measures could make an appropriately large sample version of the study tough to pull off. Doing a large-scale study with many variables on something this hard to measure is very difficult indeed.

But Pettijohn and Sacco have hit on a cool methodology here, and if nothing else it'll be exciting to see what further research they spark. Conversations about what cultural products like songs and movies and TV shows say about us as a society are too often devoid of any empirical evidence at all, and the Pettijohn/Sacco research program is a welcome corrective to that.

Thanks to Tom Jacobs and Tyler Cowen for the pointer.

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