Emotional fluctuations in the lyrics of Bob Dylan

A 2008 study looked at the fluctuation in the use of emotional words in the lyrics of Bob Dylan in relation to the events in his life.

Emotional fluctuations in Bob Dylan’s lyrics measured by the dictionary of affect accompany events and phases in his life

Psychol Rep. 2008 Apr;102(2):469-83.

Whissell C

Lyrics for Bob Dylan’s songs between 1962 and 2001 (close to 100,000 words) were scored with the help of the Dictionary of Affect in Language (Whissell, 2006). Means for Pleasantness, Activation, and Imagery are reported for 22 Blocks characterizing this time span. Significant but weak differences across Blocks were found for all three measures at the level of individual words.

Emotional fluctuations in words included in Bob Dylan’s lyrics accompanied events and phases in his life, although they were not entirely dictated by these events. Dylan used more highly Imaged and more Active words at times when his work was critically acclaimed. More Passive word choices characterized times of prolonged stress, and more Pleasant choices times of experimentation. Dylan’s three popularity peaks were used to divide the singer’s career into three stages (rhetor, poet, sage) which differed in terms of pronouns used.

It turns out that Suze Rotolo, Dylan’s girlfriend and the girl on the front of his famous album The Freewheelin’ Bob Dylan has just passed away, which made me think of this curious piece of research.

Link to PubMed entry for study.


  1. Posted March 2, 2011 at 2:30 am | Permalink

    There’s a similar study on the Beatles’ lyrics: http://www.springerlink.com/content/mm23hg8r34k55845/

  2. Posted March 3, 2011 at 2:04 pm | Permalink

    nice. i just read a bunch of his interviews. pretty opaque. the film, I’m Not There, seemed plausible to me.

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  1. […] Mind Hacks recently noted a 2008 study that analyzed the affective content of Bob Dylan’s song lyrics across 39 years of song-writing. The study then tied those emotional fluctuations to specific life events and used this information to characterize distinct periods in Dylan’s life. What a beautiful application of life-tracking. […]

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