Are songwriting standards slipping at the top of the charts?
@guardianmusic has their say.

Is lyrical intelligence getting lower? A new study suggests the complexity of lyrics is declining, comparing words used in songs to reading levels in US schoolchildren.

Conducted by data analyst Andrew Powell-Morse, the study looked into 225 songs that have topped pop, country, rock and R&B/hip-hop Billboard charts for three weeks or more.

“I turned to the,” said Powell-Morse, who used writing-analysis tools such as the Flesch-Kincaid index, a readability test to measure reading difficulty, to determine the average reading level of a section of text.

He added: “I plugged in song lyrics – punctuation added by me, since most songs lack it altogether – and out of the machine popped out average grade level, word count and other very interesting metrics.”

Powell-Morse found that chart-toppers in 2014 averaged at a second- to third-grade reading level (comparable to eight- and nine-year-olds in the UK).

Country music lyrics have the highest reading difficulty (country clocks in at 3.3), largely due to the number of syllables typically used in country songs – words such as Hallelujah, cigarettes, hillbilly and tackle box – not to mention place names including Cincinnati, Louisville, Mississippi and Louisiana.

It was followed by pop (2.9), rock (2.9), and R&B and hip-hop (2.6).

The data, Powell-Morse admitted, doesn’t consider nuances of meaning in the lyrics or metaphors – which might be why groups such as Nickelback score particularly high in the rock category.

The project found that pop artists Mariah Carey and Adele rank a grade higher than the likes of Lady Gaga and Kesha, while the highest-scoring rock song was Dani California by the Red Hot Chili Peppers, with a reading level of 5.5.

“What’s clear is that, over time, not a lot has changed. Aside from normal fluctuations, all the genres seem to have a standard level they stick to,” Powell-Morse wrote on his website, adding: “Frankly, having listened to my fair share of radio for the past 10 years, that’s not exactly surprising.”

Originally posted on

Steve Linney

Steve Linney was part of the Readable team until July 2019.