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Radiohead and sadness: a data analysis

A fan set out to data-map melancholy across the band’s nine albums.

Radiohead Tour Sydney
Radiohead performs in Sydney on November 12, 2012.
Photo by Mark Metcalfe/Getty Images
Aja Romano writes about pop culture, media, and ethics. Before joining Vox in 2016, they were a staff reporter at the Daily Dot. A 2019 fellow of the National Critics Institute, they’re considered an authority on fandom, the internet, and the culture wars.

What does sadness sound like? You probably think you know — but how would you explain it to someone else?

That question drove data analyst Charles Thompson to try to produce a data-driven visualization of depressing music. The Radiohead fan used sound metrics from Spotify and lyric data from Genius to map what he calls the “gloom index” over each of the band’s nine albums.

The result? There are two clear winners for Radiohead’s saddest and happiest songs, but the rest of the band’s discography might best be described emotionally as a stroll through melancholy.

Charles Thompson/RCharlie

Measuring melancholy

Thompson wanted to know how to quantify sadness, so he decided to use metrics for the two classic components of a song: music and words.

You might think measuring the music would be harder than measuring something quantifiable, like words, but thanks to years of research into a musical property called valence, it was surprisingly easy.

Valence refers to music’s emotional properties — whether it sounds happy or sad, in a nutshell. Researchers have been mapping ways to study valence for years, mainly by dividing music into positive and negative responses and instances of high and low arousal. If you’d like to hear what this might sound like in practice, you can compare this bouncy music, which induces positive emotion and high arousal, to this angry music, which induces negative emotion and only limited bursts of high arousal.

Spotify describes its valence measurement as “[a] measure from 0.0 to 1.0 describing the musical positiveness conveyed by a track. Tracks with high valence sound more positive (e.g. happy, cheerful, euphoric), while tracks with low valence sound more negative (e.g. sad, depressed, angry).”

When Thompson pulled the data for Radiohead from Spotify’s API, it produced a clear metric for the two songs that sounded the saddest, musically. “We Suck Young Blood,” off the 2003 album Hail to the Thief, tied with “True Love Waits,” a longtime staple of Radiohead concerts that finally made it onto 2016’s A Moon Shaped Pool.

But which was sadder lyrically?

To measure the words, Thompson looked for keywords in Radiohead lyrics using a data output from the online lyrics vault Genius. Using a lexicon of words that had been analyzed and associated with sadness, Thompson tallied the number of depressing words in each song.

After running the lyrics of his two contenders for saddest song overall, he determined that “True Love Waits” was the saddest of them all. This could be because “We Suck Young Blood’s” lyrics, while menacing, didn’t register with the word lexicon as particularly depressing, so after averaging in the percentage of gloomy words, it clocked in much higher, with a score of 17 out of 100.

The song with the highest number of sad words in its lyrics turned out to be “High And Dry,” which registered as 36 percent sad according to the lexicon of sad words but didn’t even crack the bottom 10 Radiohead songs in terms of having a sad valence score. After averaging the scores together, Thompson tabulated “High and Dry” as a 15 out of 100, making it the eighth-saddest Radiohead song according to his metrics.

The metric isn’t a perfect tool. For instance, “15 Step,” a song considered “happy” by Radiohead’s standards, scored the highest of all songs on the emotional readout. But its lyrics speak of empty disillusionment, and the refrain, “15 steps, then a sheer drop,” is widely thought to refer to being hung from the gallows. Hardly cheery.

Still, while it may be impossible to say which Radiohead song has the dreariest subtext, the data Thompson used allowed him to chart a basic path through the band’s discography, mapping each album by its overall atmosphere of gloom.

The takeaway? Radiohead has been sad for a while — but maybe not as depressing as its cultural reputation might indicate. Its low point right up until last year was its mid-course, the 2001 album Amnesiac, which scored a 38 out of 100 overall on the “gloom index.” Afterward, the band steadily climbed toward the light before plunging sharply again with last year’s A Moon Shaped Pool.

Thompson doesn’t say what motivated him to embark on this search for what he calls “data-driven depression.” But he does note that he’s used to “people politely suggesting that I play something ‘less depressing.’”

Thanks to Thompson taking the time to wallow in quantitative sadness, we’re all a bit closer to understanding what “less depressing” actually means.

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