The late-great Leonard Cohen sings ‘Hallelujah’; Photo: YouTube


In a paper published via Royal Society Open Science, a division of the UK’s infamous collection of great minds dating back to the 1600s, researchers from Indiana University, Artemy Kolchinsky, Nakul Dhande, Kengjeun Park and Yong-Yeol Ahn, analyzed the connection between musical chords and lyrics.

Named after a Leonard Cohen verse in “Hallelujah” that references the most prevalent chord progression in modern pop, the Royal Society crew dubbed the study, The Minor fall, the Major lift: inferring emotional valence of musical chords through lyrics.”

“Motivated by the idea that the emotional content of chords is reflected in the words used in corresponding lyrics,” the research team discovered that there is a direct association between major chords and positive valence.

‘Valence’, in case you’re grammar vernacular muscle is rusty, is defined as: “The number of grammatical elements with which a particular word, especially a verb, combines in a sentence.”

The researchers downloaded 90,000 songs from Ultimate Guitar (a site that allows users to upload lyrics and chords from songs as a musical reference guide), and compared it with data from labMT (a site that measures the positive and negative connotations in lyrics).

The team reinforced the knowledge that minor chords are associated with negative lyrics like “pain,” “die” and “lost.” But what they discovered was that high-valence words like “love,” “glory,” “baby,” and “like” have a tendency to show up in the seventh chords.

The team also incorporated several key factors including geographical regions, historical eras, instruments and musical styles. According to the data, ’60s rock is the most positive genre while punk and metal are the most negative, and the most macabre songs come from Scandinavia, while the happiest songs come from Asia.

Researchers hope to continue their studies and are looking “to move the analysis of emotional content beyond single chords.” Their theory is that chord progression can offer a more comprehensive view on the relationship between melodies and lyrics.

This isn’t the first time scientists have come together to analyze lyrics; an ex-physicist compiled data to find the most metal words, The Pudding created a graphic to measure lyrical similarities in rap, and the Journal of Consumer Psychology published a paper on repetitious lyrics in Pop music.

While melodies and harmonies have long been associated with projecting emotions, it’s interesting to see how analysts will quantify the inexact science of creativity.

Or in the great words of Leonard:

There’s a blaze of light in every word
It doesn’t matter which you heard
The holy or the broken Hallelujah