(Post contains naughty words you may consider NSFW. Edited since first posted.)
A few weeks back I wrote about the subject matter of country song lyrics. Country was once a personal music, albeit focused on love and loss. Today’s country, while vastly more interesting musically, is stylized lyrically around a handful of tropes. The vulgarity of hip-hop and rap has been frequently discussed since the rise of those genres 25 years ago. The blues has always had its own language, and soul music expressed a particular take on the world as well. Yet even within their differences, we can guess that the various genres have a lot in common. Love songs, after all, are universal.
So we understand that genres differ, but we’ve never been able to see it graphically—at least not until now. Over at Last.FM, a researcher analyzed the lyrics of 240,000 songs from various genres and generated word clouds based on the words that occur most frequently. The words are sorted a couple of different ways. One way finds the words that occur most often within each genre (not including words that don’t carry significant meaning, such as and, for, I, and you). By this analysis, love and time occur most frequently across all genres, except in hip-hop and rap, where the biggest word in both clouds is nigga, which is the sort of fact that comments on itself.
The research also includes a set of clouds that shows which words are characteristic of each genre. These words are intended to be analogous to search terms. According to the researcher, they are ” the words which, if used as search terms for example, would be best at selecting songs from that genre correctly (true positives), while minimizing the number of songs retrieved from other genres (false positives).” It’s these clouds that are the most revealing about the intentions and preoccupations of each genre’s songwriters.
For country, the word country itself appears frequently, as baby, woman, lonely, guitar, heart, night, memories, road, good, and dream. Compare that to the broad genre of rock: time, love, things, world, heart, walk, wait, friend. In the blues we see woman, baby, babe, honey, darlin’, mama, lord, guitar, and trouble. In soul music, a remarkably small number of words jumps out of the cloud: love, baby, wanna, and ooh. And in the hip-hop cloud, it’s nigga, niggaz, shit, bitch, ass, and rhyme. Metal is equally predictable (and equally unattractive): fuck, dead, death, bleed, scream, hate, fear, and god.
The research also includes a chart showing the commonalities between the words, which shows (as you can probably guess) that hip-hop and rap are extreme outliers in terms of subject matter—but they have less in common than you might expect. They share about the same number of words as do indie and country, which you probably wouldn’t have guessed. Another surprise: electronic music, thanks to its roots in house music, is more closely related to soul and the blues than country, which was born from some of the same ancestors as soul and the blues.
Examining word clouds is a fascinating way to look at music, really, and I recommend you spend some time doing so in the next several days, as posts will continue to be light around these parts during our ongoing hiatus. The next one is scheduled for Monday, although I will try to get one together for earlier in the holiday weekend.