Why do we enjoy listening to sad music?
This maybe one of those quintessentially existential questions any person, regardless of culture, would ask – “why do we enjoy listening to sad music?” The general knowledge and assumption is that sad music makes you sad, but a study made by researchers from the Tokyo University of the Arts and the RIKEN Brain Science Institute – published in the open-access journal Frontiers in Psychology – says that sad music may actually evoke positive emotions in the listener.
Lead researcher Ai Kawakami and the research team asked 44 people, which include musicians and non-musicians, to listen to two classical pieces of “sad” music and one piece of “happy” music. In classical music, pieces done in the minor keys would generally denote sadness, while pieces done in the major key would be the direct opposite. The sad songs in the study were Glinka’s La Séparation in F-minor and Blumenfeld’s Etude Sur Mer in G-minor. The happy music piece was Granados’s Allegro de Concierto in G major. In the study, each of the listeners was required to rate the songs based on a set of keywords, showing their perception of the piece of music and also their revealing their emotional state.
The results show that while the listeners would normally rate the sad music as tragic or downright sad, the emotions they had while listening to the sad song contradicted their perception of the song itself. “Music that is perceived as sad actually induces a romantic emotion [in the listener] as well as a sad emotion. And people, regardless of their musical training, experience this ambivalent emotion to listen to the sad music,” the researchers concluded. The research group thinks that unlike sadness in daily life, “musical” sadness experienced through art actually feels pleasant. This may be because listeners do not perceive the “sadness” in a song as a direct threat to their life’s happiness. In actuality, the researchers think that listening to sad music might actually be therapeutic in this sense. “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,” they concluded.