Ray Charles at the Festival de Jazz de Comblain-la-Tour in 1964. From Wikimedia Commons

In an effort to ward off the exhaustion of COVID-19 quarantines, college finals and the tail-end of Michigan’s brutal winter blues, I’ve turned to music for a much-needed mood booster. Perhaps unsurprisingly, I’ve found some sunny rays way back in the ’50s. Nostalgia has always been comforting, but is there something else at play that makes older music feel so good? I have a sneaking suspicion: Modern music has lost its pep.

Maybe it is mere nostalgia — the stress of the past year and the impending doom of imagined futures make the past feel all the more enticing, safe and comforting. Addressing the power of nostalgia, Daily staffer Emily Blumberg wrote, “It’s tempting to get wrapped up in reliving what seems like the glory days, particularly in a pandemic, where daily life often feels simultaneously monotonous and emotionally taxing.” The perceived pep of ’50s tunes may simply be a longing to escape the present, but while nostalgia certainly plays its role, there’s something more substantial than wistful dreaming to the idolization of older music. 

Stylistically, there’s a case to be made for why the music of the 1950s exudes a certain positivity. American music of the ’50s, like music today, features a medley of styles, from “doo-wop” to crooning to the beginnings of rock ‘n’ roll.

Songs from this period are also noticeably shorter, with a few exceptions. At the time, songs were made on vinyl 78s, or the more modern 45s, both of which could hold about three minutes of music each. Songs like The Clovers’ “Love Potion No.9” and Buddy Holly’s “Rave On” both clock in at about 1:50, almost half the length of a modern track. That said, most tracks tend to be short and sweet, bursting with energy and pep. Many bands from the time also benefited from big-band orchestration from the ’20s and ’30s, contributing to the bounce of ’50s music culture. Notable artists from the ’50s include Ray Charles (“What’d I Say”), Bobby Darin (“Beyond the Sea”), Sam Cooke (“You Send Me”), Billie Holiday (“Autumn in New York”) and Chuck Berry (“Maybellene”), to name a few.

It turns out there’s more to this comparison than nostalgia, technical limitations or genre boundaries. In a 2019 study by Lawrence Technological University, researchers found that song lyrics of popular music have become “both angrier and sadder since the 1950s.” The study analyzed over 6,000 songs on the Billboard Hot 100 from 1951 to 2016, applying “automatic sentiment” to the lyrics of each song — in other words, connecting word association to sentiments, tones and emotions.

Overall, the expression of anger, sadness, disgust and fear increased over time, with anger having the most dramatic increase of expression. On the flip side, joy, the most common sentiment of songs studied in the 1950s, had decreased dramatically by 2016. Importantly, the study notes that because Billboard’s annual “Top 100” lists are based on popularity, this study shows a shift in public taste — gradually, “happy” music fell out of style. 

Rather than word association, another study in 2012 by Glenn Schellenberg at the University of Toronto analyzed tempo and musical keys to identify emotion in popular songs. According to Schellenberg, “happy” sounds tend to be in a major key with a faster tempo whereas “sad” songs are often in a minor key with a slower tempo. The study analyzed every Billboard Top 40 hit from 1965 to 2009, and Schellenberg found, unsurprisingly, that popular songs were more emotionally complex than being “happy” or “sad.” But, regardless of the song narrative, the combination of major key and fast tempo still “communicate(s) a sense of happiness.”

However, by the ’80s and ’90s, popular songs started to appear more frequently in a minor key, making songs feel sad even if the lyrics draw a positive image. Schellenberg hypothesizes that this change is due to people becoming more drawn to emotionally complex and ambiguous music — if a song is too happy, it may feel naive or childish, but a happy song in a minor key appears more sophisticated. 

None of this is to prove that modern music isn’t or can’t be happy. Rather, the ideas explored here provide a more substantial explanation for why older music may make people feel happier, instead of owing it all to nostalgia.

The music of the 1950s doesn’t have ownership over “happy” tunes, either. Arguably, the fast jazz of the ’20s, the alternative rock of the ’80s or the feminist pop and rap of contemporary artists today are all as much “mood-boosters” as any Chuck Berry song. That said, it’s really hard not to tap your foot along to Chuck Berry. 

At the end of the day, the music you love will always be the best dose of medicine for the blues — but if you’re stuck in a rut and need some inspiration for what to listen to, check out the good ol’ 1950s. There’s very little, I believe, that the likes of Dean Martin or Fats Domino can’t heal.

Daily Arts Writer Madeleine Virginia Gannon can be reached at mvmg@umich.edu.