What Listening to Sad Music Teaches Us About Sadness


We often think of sadness as a “negative” or unpleasant emotion, so why do we enjoy listening to sad music? If feeling sad was a purely negative experience it makes sense that we would avoid sad melodies and harmonies, but we do not.

One explanation for our enjoyment of sad music is a difference between perceived emotion and felt emotion. We may perceive (view, consider, think of) a piece of music as being tragic, but our feelings while listening to that selection of music can be mixed and include the sublime.

For instance, participants in a Japanese study perceived sad musical compositions as being tragic. However, their feelings while listening to the music were described as being more romantic, more blithe and less tragic than their thoughts about the piece. This held true for participants who had music training as well as those who did not.

Understanding the Effects of Sad Music

“Emotion experienced by music has no direct danger or harm, unlike the emotion experienced in everyday life,” the researchers of the Japanese study explained. “Therefore we can even enjoy unpleasant emotions such as sadness.”

What the researchers are saying is that sadness is a pleasant experience when loss is implied but not real. It stirs our romantic sensibility, a tango of loss and desire that so tantalizes us in books and movies. We long for fulfillment, and yet we become bored when satisfied.

The researchers also point out that “sad music might help to alleviate negative emotion.” It may serve as a catharsis or simply help us process our more difficult experiences. Sad music can also be consoling, a musical validation and expressed understanding of how we feel.

Rethinking Sadness

The human enjoyment of sad music stirs a rarely asked question in some of us who study psychology and the human experience: Is sadness ever a negative emotion? It is a feeling that bridges loss and life, so it is naturally bitter and sweet. Years of experiencing sadness teach us that it is more cleansing than punishing.

While we do not like the circumstances that cause our sadness, we seem to do ourselves a great disservice by labeling this emotion “negative.”

End Note

The music used in the research study, it should be noted, was instrumental. The sad selections of music were Blumenfeld’s Etude “Sur Mer” in G minor and “La Separation” in F minor by Glinka. The happy music was a piece by Granados, his Allegro de Concierto in G major. So the feelings stirred by the music had nothing to do with lyrics.

Source: Frontiers in Psychology

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