Are Pop Lyrics Getting Shorter and more Repetitive? Science Takes a Look

If you count up all the words David Bowie sings on the Diamond Dogs album, you’ll come up with a number around 2,000. Dylan and Springsteen must blow past that for any of their records. But they seem to be the exception. Pop songs now appear to have fewer lyrics. Why? Because the lyrics are more repetitive. This is from Pudding.Cool.

In 1977, the great computer scientist Donald Knuth published a paper called The Complexity of Songs, which is basically one long joke about the repetitive lyrics of newfangled music (example quote: “the advent of modern drugs has led to demands for still less memory, and the ultimate improvement of Theorem 1 has consequently just been announced”).

I’m going to try to test this hypothesis with data. I’ll be analyzing the repetitiveness of a dataset of 15,000 songs that charted on the Billboard Hot 100 between 1958 and 2017.

Measuring repetitiveness?

I know a repetitive song when I hear one, but translating that intuition into a number isn’t easy. One thing we might try is looking at the number of unique words in a song, as a fraction of the total number of words. But this metric would call the following lyric excerpts equally repetitive:

baby I don’t need dollar bills to have fun tonight
I love cheap thrills
baby I don’t need dollar bills to have fun tonight
I love cheap thrills
I don’t need no money
as long as I can feel the beat
I don’t need no money
as long as I keep dancing

~ Sia, Cheap Thrills

tonight I need dollar bills
I don’t keep fun
cheap thrills long to feel money
the bills don’t need the dancing baby
fun dollar dancing thrills the baby I need
don’t have fun
no no don’t have dancing fun tonight
beat the can as I don’t feel thrills
love the dancing money

~ Colin Morris, Original composition

These are both 52 words long and use the same 23 word vocabulary, but the first one is clearly more repetitive, because it arranges words in a predictable, repetitive order.

Keep going. You’ll love the dynamic graphic way his notion of “song compression” is expressed. In 2014, we hit an all-time high when it came to repetitive songs. And not to spoil the surprise, but Rihanna seems to be the most repetitive artist of all time, followed by Beyonce, Britney Spears and One Direction. The least repetitive? Frank Sintra and Elvis.

Thanks to Rupinder and Andy for forwarding the link.

Alan Cross

is an internationally known broadcaster, interviewer, writer, consultant, blogger and speaker. In his 30+ years in the music business, Alan has interviewed the biggest names in rock, from David Bowie and U2 to Pearl Jam and the Foo Fighters. He’s also known as a musicologist and documentarian through programs like The Ongoing History of New Music.

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