In 2014, a pair of researchers surveyed 772 people to see how they responded to sad music. Can you guess which emotion the music most often elicited?
If you guessed nostalgia, you were correct, as 76% of listeners felt this! Other popular responses included peacefulness (57.5%), tenderness (51.6%), sadness (44.9%), wonder (38.3%), and transcendence (37%).
Many of you have probably had similar experiences—times when sad music actually made you feel better. Researchers have only begun to explore this phenomenon, and in my opinion, this study, featured in the online journal PLOS One, is one of the most interesting investigations into this topic. Let’s look at what researchers learned:
People typically choose to listen to music that reflects how they feel at a particular moment. Over half of those surveyed listened to sad music when coping with emotional distress due to causes such as the loss of a loved one, end of a relationship, work-related stress, or general sadness. More than a quarter of respondents also opted for sad music when experiencing loneliness, and still others listened to facilitate reminiscence or for other reasons. In contrast, respondents completing a smaller, follow-up survey indicated that they listened to happy music when entertaining, celebrating, working out, or completing other tasks requiring motivation. They also had several other reasons for turning on happy music, like keeping up a good mood, but very few indicated that they did not listen to joyful or energetic music when happy, just as a small number of participants stayed away from sad music when feeling down.
Sad music often evokes multiple emotions in listeners. On average, respondents felt at least three different emotions while listening to sad music. Researchers characterized many of these, including nostalgia, peacefulness, and tenderness, as “sublime,” whereas sadness fell into the category of “unease,” so the emotional mix produced by the sad music was generally multi-dimensional. Additionally, they noted that the participants who enjoyed sad music the most tended to be those who felt the greatest number of emotions. These findings indicate that people find pleasure in the emotional complexity of listening to sad music.
The experience of listening to sad music usually offers multiple rewards to listeners. Sad music enabled respondents to regulate their emotions in a productive manner. By processing, rather than ignoring, sadness through music, listeners could achieve catharsis and improvements in mood. Respondents especially appreciated that they could engage in musical sadness without the typical consequences that would ensue from real-life sadness—a crucial factor in explaining the effectiveness of sad music in emotional regulation. In addition, listeners enjoyed the feeling of empathy by experiencing the same emotions as others and connecting with them through music. This reward particularly resonated with those listening to music because of loneliness. Lastly, respondents liked the imaginative musings, whether daydreaming or creative problem solving, inspired by sad music.
The rewards of listening to sad music overlap with those of listening to happy music but aren’t entirely the same. Respondents used both happy and sad music for emotional regulation and stimulation of the imagination. However, listeners typically chose joyful music in social situations, whereas people seeking connection frequently sought solace in sad music. Therefore, the feeling of empathy was significantly less relevant for those listening to happy music, as was the reward of listening to music without real-life consequences, for obvious reasons.
Researchers don’t yet know whether listeners actually feel sadness or simply perceive it in the music. This question has perplexed the research community for many years. Because this study’s respondents experienced improvements in mood through sad music, one might think the differences between music-induced emotions and emotions caused by actual events are minimal. At the same time, perhaps individuals only perceive musical sadness, or experience a less-intense version of real-life sadness, because they feel many more “positive” emotions when listening to the music, due to its inability to produce upsetting consequences. Researchers need to look into this more in the future.
Although it studied a large sample, this research is limited by factors like the self-selection of participants, lack of a control group, and use of a survey requiring recalled findings that could be colored by bias. More research must examine the topics preliminarily addressed here, but the results do seem mostly intuitive and provide encouragement for those who enjoy listening to sad music. So keep up the listening if you’re feeling down, and consider starting with one of the classic pieces most often mentioned by survey respondents: Dido’s Lament by Purcell, Barber’s Adagio for Strings, and the Adagietto from Mahler’s Symphony No. 5.
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