Why Do We Enjoy Listening to Sad Music?

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Sad music creates a contradictory mix of emotions that are pleasant to experience.

According to a new study by Kawakami et al. (2013), sad music is enjoyable because it creates an interesting mix of emotions; some negative, some positive. In their study, they found that:

“…the sad music was perceived to be more tragic, whereas the actual experiences of the participants listening to the sad music induced them to feel more romantic, more blithe, and less tragic emotions than they actually perceived with respect to the same music.”

They reached this conclusion by asking…

“…44 volunteers, including both musicians and non-specialists, to listen to two pieces of sad music and one piece of happy music. Each participant was required to use a set of keywords to rate both their perception of the music and their own emotional state.”

The key to enjoying sad music is that although we perceive the negative emotions, our felt emotions aren’t as strong as these perception. Perhaps this is because:

“Emotion experienced by music has no direct danger or harm unlike the emotion experienced in everyday life. Therefore, we can even enjoy unpleasant emotion such as sadness. If we suffer from unpleasant emotion evoked through daily life, sad music might be helpful to alleviate negative emotion.”

Although we can’t currently explain the cathartic effect of sad music—or indeed sad art in general—perhaps:

“…we initially experience negative emotion, such as sadness, and subsequently experience pleasant emotion because of the rewarding effect of enjoying art. Thus, the experience of listening to sad music may ultimately elicit pleasant emotion.”

This is just one of the psychological reasons why music is important.

You can also try the experiment for yourself. Here is one of the pieces they used in the research, it’s Glinka’s “La Séparation” in F minor. How does it make you feel?

Image credit: Scott Schiller

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About the author


Dr Jeremy Dean is a psychologist and the author of PsyBlog. His latest book is "Making Habits, Breaking Habits: How to Make Changes That Stick". You can follow PsyBlog by email, by RSS feed, on Twitter and Google+.

Published: 13 July 2013

Text: © All rights reserved.

Images: Creative Commons License