There’s always been a lot of repetition in song lyrics, obviously with some artists and songs more than others. That said, has it been happening more lately than in previous decades? Computer scientist Donald Kuth published an article in 1977 called The Complexity Of Songs that analyzed the subject back then, but there hasn’t been much study on this particular aspect of lyrics until now. Colin Morris of The Pudding did a modern analysis that studied the repetitiveness of a dataset of 15,000 songs that charted on the Billboard Hot 100 between 1958 and 2017.
Okay, so how do you measure something like lyric repetitiveness? Morris used something called the Lempel-Ziv algorithm, the lossless compression algorithm behind gifs, pngs, and most archive formats (zip, gzip, rar, etc). The algorithm works by looking for repetitive sequences, then throwing most of them away to break down the file into its essence to make it smaller. It then reinserts those same repetitive sequences when the file is rebuilt later so you never knew they were gone. In this case, only the encode portion of the process is required.
It’s not surprising that when all 15,000 songs were analyzed, the average song had between 47 and 50% repetitiveness (as seen on the left). However, it’s pretty interesting when you break it down by decades.
First let’s look at major artists across all the decades studied (graphic below). Most artists are in the middle between 40 to 50%, while Elvis and Frank Sinatra are at 35% and Rihanna is by herself above 65%.
Now lets look at this current decade as seen below. Miranda Lambert, Eric Church and Kanye West are down around 40%, while Maroon 5, Lady Gaga, The Weeknd and Beyonce are up around 60%. And of course, Rihanna is way up there beyond 65%.
Now let’s go back to the 1960s in the graphic below. Roy Orbison is way down by himself below 29%, while Leslie Gore, The Dave Clark 5, and (gasp) The Beatles are somewhere around 55%. Take notice there was not a single hit with higher repetitiveness during that period.
So if you believe this analysis, then yes, songs are more repetitive today on average, but that doesn’t make the songs any less enjoyable to those fans that love them. That said, the data also says that rappers like J. Cole and Eminem tend to be consistently non-repetitive.
There’s a lot more to this study and it’s very well laid out here.