Consumer & Behavioral Neuroscience

Why We’re Happy Being Sad: Pop music, James Bond and Batman

Last night I saw the new James Bond movie: Skyfall. Recently the older Bond films have been playing as well, marking the 50th anniversary of Bond. Seeing the older Bond movies and then this newer Bond… the differences are quite striking. Daniel Craig is great. But it’s completely different from any Connery or Moore Bond.  This Bond is troubled. This Bond is deep. This Bond is dark.

And these differences are kinda similar to the differences I see in Batman’s evolution.  Christian Bale’s Dark Knight is quite a bit more dark than Michael Keaton’s Batman.

Which all reminded me of this piece that played on NPR last month…

Why We’re Happy Being Sad: Pop’s Emotional Evolution

The study was to examine two “simple” emotions: happy and/or sad. Glenn Schellenberg, of the University of Toronto, played music for subjects who then rated how happy or sad the music made them feel. This could be conveyed in the lyrics, tempo or key (major or minor) of the music.

And there are some really typical rules that music has generally followed:

Sad music is slower in tempo, minor key and has sad lyrics.

Happy music is faster in tempo, uses major key and happy lyrics.

Makes sense. Until they started looking to categorize music from classical to modern.  Things got much more complicated after the 1960s.  Contemporary music tended to mix things up using faster tempos in minor keys with much more complicated emotions in the lyrics.

Example: 1950s “Rock Around the Clock“.

Example: 2012 “We are Never Ever Getting Back Together

Okay… maybe that’s not the best example. How about some Santigold “The Keepers“.  Social commentary, fast and pop dance beat, depressing while giving power.

“People are responding positively to music that has these characteristics that are associated with negative emotions,” he [Schellenberg] says.

Are we more sad than we were in 1950?

Are we more complicated?

“I think that people like to think that they’re smart,” he says. “And unambiguously happy-sounding music has become, over time, to sound more like a cliche. If you think of children’s music like ‘Twinkle Twinkle Little Star’ or ‘The Wheels on the Bus,’ those are all fast and major, and so there’s a sense in which unambiguously happy-sounding songs sound childish to contemporary ears. I think there’s a sense in which something that sounds purely happy, in particular, has a connotation of naivete.”

If you use a minor key, though, you can make even something with a positive message and fast tempo sound emotionally complicated.

That complexity makes both listeners and composers feel sophisticated instead of naive. In that way, Schellenberg says, the emotion of unambiguous happiness is less socially acceptable than it used to be. It’s too Brady Bunch, not enough Modern Family.

“Sadness and ambiguity: the latest emotional fashion.”

We want to be challenged. We want artists and marketers to understand that we are complex.  i can dig that.

Also, as a side note, Skyfall was awesome and I love the new Bond Song.

3 comments on “Why We’re Happy Being Sad: Pop music, James Bond and Batman

  1. Ed M.
    November 19, 2012

    If you haven’t realized, I love reading your posts. I was just discussing a similar topic with a colleague of mine. Thanks for keeping us “nerdoscientists” current!

  2. Pingback: Chocolate tastes better when you’re dieting « Nerdoscientist

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