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Why We Like Sad Music (nytimes.com)
31 points by daegloe on Sept 21, 2013 | hide | past | web | favorite | 13 comments

Link to the study:


> Three types of musical excerpts of approximately 30 s each were used.

> Forty-four people (25 females and 19 males) participated in our experiment (mean age of 25.3 years; SD = 6.6). Seventeen of these individuals were professional musicians or college students who were majoring in music (the “musician group”; n = 17). The other 27 participants were working people or college students who were not majoring in music (the “non-musician group”; n = 27).

> The participants evaluated both perceived emotion and felt emotion by responding to 62 descriptive words and phrases on a scale ranging from 0 (not at all) to 4 (very much) using the numerical keypad.

Naw, OP doesn't 'get it'!

First, let's get a leading example of "sad" music, the music for the death of Siegfried from Wagner's opera 'Götterdämmerung', damnation of the gods, the fourth and final opera in Wagner's Ring of the Nibelung:

Yup, that sounds sad alright! Sounds like how one feels just hit with the worst loss in life.

So, why does it make people feel better?

Well, to lead up to the answer, that music is art as in the common definition the communication, interpretation of human experience, emotion. So, that music communicates the emotion of a big loss.

Now why would one want to hear that? Because the music clearly says that many other people both understand that emotion and have experienced it; so, a listener with such a loss and emotion is not alone; their loss is not nearly the first such; many others have been there before; the listener's loss is not unique and, thus, comparatively not as bad as they might have feared; so that's good news for the listener, and they feel better. That's why!

Well said!

Thanks. Not just everyone will understand what I wrote. Many readers will need to listen to the YouTube piece, and for the first few times through that music will be a challenge for many readers.

Glad you 'got it'. It's not really psychology but just Art 101. E.g., there's a good reason Wagner wrote that music; it's been darned effective for well over 100 years; lots of people 'get it', enough to keep opera companies going around the world.

"You mean you can make such sounds with a symphony orchestra?"

"Yes, Virginia!".

The music can sound like what it feels like to have a great loss, a dear child, a loved spouse, a company founded that failed, a case of cancer, and much more. Great losses are so common that the music can 'reach' nearly everyone in a large audience.

"Sad is happy for deep people" - 'Blink', Doctor Who

I see nothing new here, just confirmations of the obvious, and a call to investigate vicarious emotions. But the real question all along has been, why do we enjoy sad or otherwise "unhappy" vicarious emotions. This study does nothing to answer that.

The relation between minor key and sadness is very weak. Sure, if you ask people to listen to just two chords in isolation and ask which is "sad", they'll pick the minor one. But compositions are much more complex.

It's like, if you showed people a horizontal wavy line and a straight vertical line and asked which is sad, people might pick the wavy line. Does that explain anything about fine art?

Get Lucky by Daft Punk, the feel-good song of the year, is in F# minor.

Absolutely. What makes (non-vocal) music "sad" is not inherent in the scales or harmonies used but in culturally-conditioned responses to them. The sad part is that some people can't enjoy truly beautiful music because of that kind of conditioning.

"[...] you dance to shake off sadness, and you wallow when you are happy, because wallowing is one of the luxuries which happiness allows you" - music journalist Chris Heath, writing about the Pet Shop Boys backcatalog

It seems my taste in music is related to my life philosophy. I used to like moody (or "emo" as others like to call it) music. Would listen to it everyday, and my life philosophy was one of ascribing meaning to most events in my life (aka my life followed a story). Now, I don't believe things have a meaning, and I prefer to listen to stuff that doesn't invoke either happiness nor sadness - just even-keeled music. If a song gets too upbeat, or emo, I immediately turn it off.

I have always found my taste in music shifted in a way that almost seeks out an external reflection of my internal feelings and dialog. A "like looking for like" type of situation that provides me comfort through similarity and external validation. I do not, normally, seek out "happy" music to become happy.

The researchers in the study talk about the disconnect between perceived and felt emotion, and how listening to sad music induces ambivalent or pleasant emotions, but leave out the consideration that the listeners were given the music to judge, instead of seeking out music they wanted. I would argue, the emotions felt, by the listeners, were a result of successfully identifying and differentiating the music's "feelings" from their own. (That music is sad, but I am not. Success.)

If this is true, what we experience when we listen to sad music might be thought of as “vicarious emotions.”

I don't usually like to roll my eyes at the objects of scientific study, but this conclusion is so obvious that it causes me to question the authors' emotional literacy.

It is a way to give vent to sadness and depression, apart from tears and dejected face

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