Motivation and emotion/Book/2017/Sad music and emotion

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Sad music and emotion:
What is the effect of sad music on emotion?

Overview[edit | edit source]

Tomba Famiglia Appiani (Cimitero di Staglieno) The scene that adorns the cover of Joy Division's miserable, second and final studio album, Closer

Why do we listen to music that we perceive to be "sad"? This emotion is generally seen to be negative; it is an emotional reaction to undesirable and distressing situations. But at one time or another, each of us has devoted our time to consuming music that both displays, and elicits in us, the feeling of sadness. Generally, human instinct aims to avoid painful experiences, so why is it that we seek out these feelings by purposefully exposing ourselves to this mental pain?

This contradiction has provided somewhat of a dilemma for psychologists who are interested in emotion. How does listening to sad music affect us emotionally? In asking this question, we will first consider briefly why it is that we consume music at all, and then take a brief look at the history of human enjoyment of misery in art.

This chapter then discusses:

  • The musical components of sad music (i.e. theories on what constitutes 'sad' music)
  • Sad music inducing pleasurable emotions
  • The Tragedy Paradox
  • Individual responses to sad music
  • Psychophysiological responses to listening to sad music
  • Clinical implications of pleasurable responses to sad music

Why do we listen to music?[edit | edit source]

Listening to music is a prevalent and favourite past time. It is estimated that the average Western teenager listens to music for somewhere between two to four and a half hours per day (Strasburger & Wilson, 2002). Emotion is a central process of creating and consuming music (Juslin & Västfjäll, 2008). Hence music is often described and regarded as the "language of emotion" (Juslin & Soboda, 2011). Music, it seems, provides the most rewarding and pleasurable experience when it stimulates an emotional response and change in emotional arousal (Juslin & Västfjäll, 2008). It has been found that individuals who show less psychophysiological arousal will report greater indifference to a piece than those who displayed greater emotional arousal (Salimpoor et al., 2009). So it seems that when music modifies our emotional affect, it is at its most pleasurable (Salimpoor et al., 2009).

History of misery in art[edit | edit source]

Themes of misery in art are as old as art itself. In ancient times, tens of thousands of people would gather at arenas to watch stage show tragedies (Garrido, 2016), and great thinkers such as Plato and Aristotle pondered the deepness and significance of tragic poetry (Halliwell, 2002). In the seventeenth century the rise of the "Elizabethan melancholy" spread across the arts and was met with great popularity (Garrido, 2016).

Throughout history and across cultures, art and music have sought to make and consume art that conveys sadness and misery (Sachs et al., 2015). Classical music is a known vehicle for the aesthetic of sadness (Sachs et al., 2015). Folk music from around the world often deliberates and conveys sadness. Fado is a musical style from Portugal that deals specifically with loss and longing, just like the Blues for 19th and 20th Century African Americans (Garrido, 2016). Themes of sadness also permeate modern day pop music. Many Chinese and Korean pop songs deal with separation and long distance love (Garrido, 2016), as does modern American pop music (Sachs et al., 2015).

Sad and melancholy music[edit | edit source]

While it may seem anti-instinctual in the reading of art forms, musicologists and psychologists have been able to provide an empirical framework for sad music to be defined objectively. This empirical definition of sad music is based on acoustic properties (Sachs et al., 2015). Within the structure of music there are cues that the listener may associate with either negative or positive feelings. Gabrielsson and Lindström's (2010) study summarised the findings of nearly 100 years of research to examine the structural cues of a musical piece that are commonly associated with emotional expression. They found that they most commonly are: Tempo markings, Dynamic markings, Pitch, Intervals, Mode, Melody, Rhythm, Harmony and; various formal properties (for example: repetition, variation and transposition) (Gabrielsson & Lindström, 2010).

Sad music defined by its components[edit | edit source]

According to an empirical examination of emotional responses to music by Juslin (2000) (see also, Gabrielsson & Lindström, 2010; Juslin & Lauka, 2004), sad music can be more closely associated with these characteristics:

  • Slow tempo
  • Soft dynamics
  • Low and narrow pitch range
  • Minor key
  • Lower sound level
  • Legato articulation (that is; the musical notes being strung together smoothly)
  • Less energetic execution
  • Dull and dark timbres
Consider this piece of music

Burial - "Fostercare" (5.32 min., video)
Do you perceive this music as being sad? According to research, most would. There are a number of elements in this song that most people would perceive as eliciting sadness. The song meanders along at a slow tempo, with some dark and dull timbres. The pitch range is low and narrow, and the dynamic is soft. The song is in a minor key, with a lower sound level and a low-energy execution. All of these factors are associated with "sad" music.

Subjective notions of sad music[edit | edit source]

Music can also be subjectively perceived as sad by a listener. Studies have utilised self-report techniques to classify whether a musical piece can be considered sad or not (Sachs et al., 2015). Lyrics in popular music play a significant role in how an individual may define the emotional affect of a song. Lyrical themes such as lost love, loss, regret, and negative mental states can elicit and trigger memories that the individual associates with sadness (Sachs et al., 2015). Lyrical themes potentially outweigh happier music when accompanied by one another (Mori & Iwanaga, 2013). When sad lyrical themes are set to happier music, often the listener perceives the whole song as sad (Mori & Iwanaga, 2013).

Happy Music, Sad Lyrical Themes

The Smiths - "Heaven Knows I'm Miserable Now" (3.35 min., video)
According to Mori and Iwanaga (2013) the lyrical themes of a song potentially outweigh musical components of the same song. When sad lyrical themes are set to happier music, often the listener perceives the whole song as sad. Consider the juxtaposition of the lyrics and music in this song. Do you initially consider this song to be "happy" or "sad"?

The Tragedy Paradox[edit | edit source]

It is an age old anomaly that an individual would willingly listen to sad music. Psychologists consider sadness as being a state of negative valence (Kawakami et al., 2013). In most circumstances, the psychologist and the lay person would consider sadness to be a negative and unpleasant emotion. However, sadness in music is often contradictorily related to a pleasureable experience (Eerola & Peltola, 2016). How can this be, that in artistic appreciation, humans find pleasure in the sadness expressed through music or other art? It is this question forms the basis of The Tragedy Paradox.

The tragedy paradox is the idea that while humans attempt to minimise painful experiences and sadness in everyday life, in an aesthetic context we seem to seek them out (Sachs, et al., 2015). For Aristotle, tragic theatre was a way for the audience to initially experience, then purge, negative emotions (Sachs, et al., 2015). He referred to this experience of rapidly cycling through the stages of an emotion as "catharsis" (Schaper, 1968). This shaped much of how modern psychologists approach the tragedy paradox, in that sad art can provide psychological rewards (Sachs, et al. 2015).

Psychological Approaches to Reconciling The Tragedy Paradox[edit | edit source]

The psychologists who attempt to explain the paradox theory fall into two broad main categories: cognitivists, and emotivists (Sachs, et al., 2015).

Cognitivists[edit | edit source]

This school of thought argues that we find pleasure in sad music because we do not actually experience these negative emotions (Kivy, 1991). Rather, it is argued, we can only simply perceive the emotions in the music and which, in turn, reminds the listener of how one feels when they actually experience the emotion (Kivy, 1991; Sachs, et al., 2015). Cognitivists assert that music serves as a tour guide for the listener to visit past emotions without actually feeling them (Sachs et al., 2015).

Emotivists[edit | edit source]

On the other hand, emotivists posit that music does indeed create true emotions upon listening (Levinson, 1990). However, there are branches of this thinking that argue the nature of the emotions felt. Some argue that the emotions felt when listening are not the same as everyday emotions; that is, "music sadness" is not the same as "life sadness" because the environmental conditions that are needed to feel the emotion are not existent in music (Sachs et al., 2015). Conversely, emotivist Jerrold Levinson (1990) argues that we do feel genuine sadness when we listen to sad music. He sees the feeling of sadness derived from hearing sad music as rewarding and beneficial in eight different ways, as shown in Table 1.

Table 1.

Table Caption Goes Here

Benefit Definition
Catharsis the purging of negative emotions
Apprehending Expression improved understanding of the emotions expressed in a piece of art
Savouring Feeling satisfaction of feeling emotion in art
Understanding Feeling opportunity to learn about one's feelings
Emotional Assurance confirmation of one's ability to feel deeply
Emotional Resolution knowledge that an emotion has, and can be, regulated
Expressive Potency pleasure of expressing one's feelings
Emotional Communion connection to composer or others

Derived from Sachs et al., (2015) and Levinson (1990)

Further Theories[edit | edit source]

[Provide more detail]

Cognitive processes[edit | edit source]

The phenomenon of experiencing pleasure from sad music is explored by another school of psychological thought. This line of research investigates the cognitive processes that are at work. This line of thought proposes that music that is perceived as sad does not produce displeasure in the listener (Schubert, 1996). The negative emotions that are felt through the music do not create lasting sadness because the stimulus is considered to be purely aesthetic (Schubert, 1996). Thus we identify that the stimulus is not a threat and the lessened emotional response is replaced with the default feeling of pleasure that the music provides us (Schubert, 1996; Eerola & Peltola, 2016).

Psychophysiological theories[edit | edit source]

[Provide more detail]

The Role of Prolactin[edit | edit source]

It has been theorised that the hormone prolactin plays a role in the enjoyment of sad music. Huron (2011) introduced this idea by positing that the emotion that is felt by listening to sad music is real enough to deceive the brain. The music, and the resultant perceived emotion, causes the brain to act in a way that compensates and attempts to change the pain (Huron, 2011). The release of prolactin is the brain's way of consoling and counteracting the negative emotion (Huron, 2011). The release of prolactin in the absence of the negative stimulus results in the positive feeling that the listener feels (Huron, 2011). Additionally, Huron's study distinguishes between a pleasurable sadness and an unpleasant sadness experienced by the listener when exposed to sad music. Specifically, high levels of prolactin are linked with pleasurable sadness, while low prolactin levels correlate with unpleasant sadness. Sachs et al. (2015) point out that Huron's (2011) research does not explain why this phenomenon is unique to music.

Neurobiology of Pleasurable Sadness[edit | edit source]

Experiments conducted with neuroimaging have shown that pleasure derived from sad art involves a number of processes:

  1. Sad music reaches the brain
  2. Acoustic properties (e.g., timbre, mode, loudness) are assessed for emotional triggers - this processing occurs in the brainstem, and the auditory cortices
  3. The experience of sadness is a result of learned associations with the auditory stimulus, lyrical content and how the body reacted physiologically on previous occasions
  4. Experiences of pleasure are correlated with activity in the ventral striatum (Sachs et al., 2015).

We can learn a great deal of useful information about neural processes when pleasurable sadness is induced by music. Neurobiological frameworks provide solid scientific foundations for future research and theories.

Individual Differences[edit | edit source]

This chapter has outlined how sad music can generally elicit psychological rewards, but it is not the same for everyone at all times. Earlier in the chapter we looked at how psychologists have built an objective framework for what constitutes "sad" music. We also briefly touched on how subjective factors contribute to the ways in which individuals identify sad music. The subjectivity of sad music also extends to the individual's response to the music.

Negative Responses to Sad Music[edit | edit source]

Research shows that individuals respond to sad music differently, and not with a pleasurable response all the time (Sachs et al., 2015). Eerola and Peltola (2016) investigated how memorable experiences with sad music are not always for a positive reason. Although they identified two types of positive sadness experience from music (comforting sorrow and sweet sorrow), one type - grief-stricken sorrow - was negative, and not uncommon (Eerola & Peltola, 2016). Some find that listening to sad music provides feelings of actual sadness and is entirely unpleasant (Huron, 2011).

Personality and Sad Music[edit | edit source]

In exploring the effect of sad music on emotion, it is useful to look at what types of people have a particular liking for sad music. In doing so, we can investigate emotional consequences of sad music. Some personality types have been shown to have more of a propensity to liking sad music more than others (Vuoskoski et al., 2011). With regard to the Big Five Model of personality, higher scores on openness to experience and lower scores on extraversion have been shown to be associated with a greater liking of sad music (Vuoskoski et al., 2011). Huron (2011) speculates that increased musical experience could be a predictor of increased pleasure derived from sad music. The theory being that the more experience a person has, the richer the learned association (Huron, 2011). This, however requires further investigation. It has also been found that those who score highly on trait rumination measures also scored highly on enjoyment of sad music (Sachs et al., 2015). This, however, is less likely the result of sad music's resulting feelings of pleasure than it is a maladapted longing for negative emotional states (Sachs et al., 2015).

Sad Music as Therapy for Depression Sufferers[edit | edit source]

It is widely purported in the literature that music has a profound ability to alter mood (Wilhelm et al., 2013). Music has long been utilised for its therapeutic qualities due to its ability to alter our emotional states (Wilhelm et al., 2013). Additionally, research has shown that a significant number of individuals use sad music to self-regulate emotions (Peltola & Eerola, 2016). At least one study has shown that individuals diagnosed with depression are more likely to match their musical choices with their current emotional state (Wilhelm et al., 2013; Sachs et al., 2015). So if a depressed person is more likely to want to "express and understand emotions" then sad music could be a healthy choice, given it elicits pleasurable emotions (Sachs et al., 2015).

Conclusion[edit | edit source]

This chapter explored how sad music affects emotion. In general, we listen to sad music primarily because it elicits a pleasurable response. Scholars seem to agree that sad music creates pleasure in the listener because the real life factors that determine sadness are absent. With sad music, we can more easily understand and savour our own emotions, which is beneficial to the individual. While many schools of thought within emotional psychology (and also beyond the realm of psychology altogether) have attempted to address the contradiction, there is not yet a solid, parsimonious account of why pleasure from sad music occurs.

See Also[edit | edit source]

References[edit | edit source]

Eerola, T., Peltola, H. R. (2016). Memorable Experiences with Sad Music-Reasons, Reactions and Mechanisms of Three Types of Experiences.PLoS One. 11 (6).

Gabrielsson, A., Lindström, E. (2010). The role of structure in the musical expression of emotions, in Handbook of Music and Emotion: Theory, Research, and Applications, eds Juslin P. N., Sloboda J. A., editors. (Oxford: Oxford University Press; ), 367–400

Garrido, S. (2016). Why are we attracted to sad music? Palgrave McMillan.

Halliwell, S. (2002). The Aesthetics of Mimesis: Ancient texts and modern problems. Princeton University Press. Access: http://1:8080/jspui/bitstream/1/2354/1/Halliwell,%20Stephen%20-%20The%20Aesthetics%20of%20Mimesis.pdf

Huron, D. (2011). Why is sad music pleasurable? A possible role for prolactin. Musicae Scientiae. 15. 146-158. 10.1177/1029864911401171. Access:

Juslin, P. (2000). Cue utilization in communication of emotion in music performance: relating performance to perception. J. Exp. Psychol. Hum. Percept. Perform. 26, 1797–1813. Access:

Juslin P. N., Laukka P. (2004). Expression, perception and induction of musical emotions: a review and a questionnaire study of everyday listening. J. N. Music Res. 33, 217–238

Juslin, P.N. & Sloboda, J.A. (Eds.) (2010). Handbook of music and emotion . New York: Oxford University Press .

Juslin, P. N., & Västfjãll, D. (2008). Emotional responses to music: The need to consider underlying mechanisms. Behavioral & Brain Sciences, 31(5), 559-575. doi:10.1017/S0140525X08005293

Kawakami, A., Furukawa, K., Katahira, K., & Okanoya, K. (2013). Sad music induces pleasant emotion. Frontiers in Psychology, 4, 311.

Levinson J. (1990). Music, Art and Metaphysics: Essays in Philosophical Aesthetics. New York: Oxford University Press.

Mori K., Iwanaga M. (2013). Pleasure generated by sadness: effect of sad lyrics on the emotions induced by happy music. Psychol. Music 42, 643–652.

Peltola, H. R., Eerola, T. (2016). Fifty shades of blue: Classification of music-evoked sadness. Musicae Scientae. 20. 1, 84-102.

Salimpoor, V. N., Benovoy, M., Longo, G., Cooperstock, J. R., & Zatorre, R. J. (2009). The Rewarding Aspects of Music Listening Are Related to Degree of Emotional Arousal. PLoS One, 4(10), e7487, doi: 10.1371/journal.pone.0007487

Sachs, M. E., Damasio, A., & Habibi, A. (2015). The pleasures of sad music: a systematic review. Frontiers in Human Neuroscience, 9, 404.

Schubert E. (1996). Enjoyment of negative emotions in music: an associative network explanation. Psychol. Music 24, 18–28

Strasburger, V.C., & Wilson, B.J. (2002). Children, adolescents and the media. Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage

Vuoskoski J. K., Thompson W. F., McIlwain D., Eerola T. (2011). Who enjoys listening to sad music and why? Music Percept. 29, 311–317.

Wilhelm K., Gillis I., Schubert E., Whittle E. L. (2013). On a blue note: depressed peoples’ reasons for listening to music. Music Med. 5, 76–83. 10.1177/1943862113482143

External Links[edit | edit source]