Classifying Country Music Songs is an Art — Getting Training Data

If you’ve been following along recently, I’ve been writing about my theory of country music, and how unlike most other genres out there, country music song topics are, let’s just say, much more centralized. And so in my continuing effort to automatically classify the country songs topic, I need to take all the songs lyrics I downloaded, and manually classify them so I have some training data.

This is actually the third post on this topic I’ve written. In the first post where I showed how to get song lyrics using Genius’s API and scraping, and then the second post, where I gathered up all the lyrics from country artists, removed the duplicates, and realized that Lee Brice talks about beer and trucks much more than he does about love. The stats I ran at the end of the second entry are fine and all, but really what I have at the moment is some 5 thousand songs that are uncategorized, which isn’t going to allow me to do any more sophisticated classification than simple word analysis.

What this means is I’m going to need some help classifying those 5000 songs. To do this, I wrote a rails app deployed on Heroku free mode that will allow anyone to sign up and help with this task. Obviously I’m not expecting people to get through all 5000 themselves (other than me of course), but hopefully if I can get enough people to do more than a few songs, I can get a good representation from which I can get interesting results.

Rest of the article is as follows. First, I’ll have a section where I talk about my theory of country music song topics, which I’ve been annoying my friends by talking about whenever we talk about country music. Then in the next / last section, I’ll talk about how I’m looking to get these songs classified, and what the interface is like and what’s going on behind the scenes.

As an aside, I am somewhat of a fan of country music. I usually just say it’s pop music with a slide, and by definition, pop music is catchy. But still, those country song lyrics can get quite ridiculous () which is definitely fun to laugh at.

Also, follow me along on twitter for more updates on this, and other topics.

Country Music Song Topics

Topic 1: Love

Love. The classic song topic — universally relatable, unbounded in subtopics, and somewhat of a default topic for any story, song or otherwise.Now that I think about it, I’m not sure there’s any song genre out there that doesn’t have love as a main song topic. So it makes sense that love is quite prevalent in many of the country songs.

Whether happy songs, about how Brett Young can’t go to sleep unless his girl is next to him at night,

or sad songs, about how the guy in Billy Currington’s song, “It Don’t Hurt Like It Used To”, was broken up with, but got over it eventually. Or somewhat, cause it still hurts.

Now that I think about it, I’m not sure there’s any song genre out there that doesn’t have love as a main song topic.

Topic 2: Small Town Life

Nothing says small town life like boots, dirt roads, dumpy bars with a cover band, railroad tracks, barns, white churches, and crop fields. No, I’m not making this up, those are just some of the things the band LoCash sings about in their recent song titled “I Love this Life”

If that wasn’t enough, how about picket fences, blue sky and green grass, old Ford trucks, back porches, homemade wine, tire swings, fireworks, and dead deer heads waiting to be hung on the wall. Yup, that’s just what Drake White is singing about in his song “Livin’ The Dream”. I admit, if I hear this when scrolling through stations on the radio in my car that doesn’t have an aux port, I’ll turn it up.

And how about guitars, stray dogs, one room churches (color unknown), back roads (again), sunsets, bonfires, rusty roofs, handshake deals, and fresh cut hay?

And those are just current songs on the Billboard Top 25 Chart right now. I think you get the idea.

Oh, and how could I forget one of the best songs out there, Dirt Road Anthem, by Jason Aldean!

These small town songs are really funny.

Topic 3 — Alcohol / Vices

Often on the more comical side of songs, the vice topic, which usually means alcohol is well represented in country song topics.

Be it Toby Kieth’s famous party anthem, “Red Solo Cup”,

Or Brad Paisley, who just straight up named a song “Alcohol”,

You’re gonna hear a lot about beer, moonshine, whiskey

Now it’s important here to realize that songs don’t always just fit into one of these three topics exactly.

Sometimes, you’ll find songs about multiple topics at once. For example, in Thomas Rhett’s “Make Me Wanna”, he sings about all the things this girl makes him wanna do, including, but not limited to pulling his truck to the side of the road, sliding on over and pull her close, and telling her everything. So this song is probably considered part about love, and partly about small town things.

Another example of a combo deal would be about the relationship of love and alcohol which Chris Stapleton sung about multiple times on his CMA Album of the Year winning record called, of course it is “Home”. Tennessee Whiskey isn’t just about Tennessee Whiskey, but actually about how a woman’s love feels like whiskey to him. If only we could all buy love in a bottle, right guys?

Actually, Mr. Stapleton must really love whiskey, since he has another song on that album called “Whiskey and You”, about the differences between whiskey and a woman’s love.

These examples of crossover songs lead me to the next section, where I’ll talk about what I’m looking for with this manual classification.

Classification

For each of the songs I have up on the classification site, what I’m looking to get is a percentage that each song is about a certain topic.

For example, I’d say that Make Me Wanna is 50% about love, 50% about small town country life. Chris Stapleton’s whiskey songs above would be 50% about love, 50% about alcohol. Other songs might have different percentage splits about the different topics, or actually, some songs might be about a topic not listed above. I admit there are a few introspective songs out there on the country circuit.

I built two different interfaces on the site. The first is an “advanced” mode, where each topic gets a number field where you get as specific as you want with these percentages. If you think some song is 51% about alcohol, 48% about love, and 1% about small town living, that’s the mode for you.

The second interface features radio buttons, with primary and secondary topic choices. Since clicking buttons is much easier than entering numbers for everything. Here’s how the button interface translates to percentages:

  • If you choose “Love” for Primary, and “Small Towns” for secondary, that means you think 75% of the song is about love, and 25% is about small towns.
  • If you choose “Love” for Primary, and “Small Towns” for secondary, and also check the equal checkbox at the bottom of the form, that means you think 50% of the song is about love, and 50% is about small towns.
  • If you choose “Love” for Primary, and “None” for secondary, that means you choose 100% for love, and 0% for the rest of the options.
  • Also note that even though it’s an option, you can’t choose “other” for both primary and secondary topics. If you find a song that has a combo of two different topics, then send me an email or tweet and you might be able to convince me to build that functionality in.
  • And with both interfaces you’ll notice, there’s a text box if you want to specify what the “other” category is.

For the most part, the button interface is more than enough to get your info in the system, but if you want to get super specific, go for it!

So that’s it! Here’s the link again, so go there and get to classifying. It’s actually pretty fun, and more fun if you have someone there to talk about how much of a song is about a certain topic. Get some good arguments, and bizarre lyrics, and help me out! If you see any errors, or think I can improve something, let me know and I’ll make the changes too.

UPDATE 11/1: Added flagging feature for the songs, so if you see a song that looks off, just write a message in the box and I’ll be able to see it!

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