Listening to sad music has the power to lift us up and improve our mood. Referred to as pleasurable sadness, this might seem counterintuitive, but brain scans provide a glimpse of how music evokes emotions.
Brain images reveal that listening to sad music activates parts of the brain that elicit emotions. Although we generally avoid sadness in life, in music and art in general, we find pleasure in it. Music brings out emotions and we may link these emotions to our own experiences.
The regions of the brain that are involved in processing feelings of sadness, in general, also appear to be implicated in the processing of feelings evoked by music.Frontiers | The Pleasures of Sad Music: A Systematic Review
If you find yourself uplifted after listening to melancholy music or even after watching a sad part of a movie (a part usually accompanied by music), then you’re experiencing pleasurable sadness.
Rewards of Sadness
Philosopher Jerrold Levinson argues that sad music makes us sad and it’s the sadness itself that makes it rewarding. Levinson lists 8 benefits of listening to sad music:
- catharsis: the purging of negative emotions
- apprehending expression: an improved understanding of the emotions expressed in a piece of art
- savoring feeling: the satisfaction that arises from simply feeling any emotion in response to art
- understanding feeling: the opportunity to learn about one’s feelings
- emotional assurance: the confirmation in one’s ability to feel deeply
- emotional resolution: the knowledge that an emotion state has been, and can be, regulated
- expressive potency: the pleasure that arises from expressing one’s feelings
- emotional communion: a connection to the feelings of the composer or other listeners
In large scale surveys, “people often cite similar benefits to the ones described by Levinson.” Moreover, participants associate sad music with empathy, distraction from current situation, and “the experience of intense emotions without real-life implications.”
This is how researchers measure sad music and sadness.
What is sad music?
Researchers define sad music in two ways: the objective measure involves acoustic measures such as pitch, tempo, minor mode, timbres, sound levels, and energy. On the other hand, subjective measures are based on how the listener interprets a piece of music. In a study on sad music measured subjectively, researchers find:
Specifically, in relation to sad music, music that induced a sad mood, judged by subjective reporting, was shown to correlate with increased blood oxygen level dependent (BOLD) signal in the hippocampus and the amygdala.Frontiers | The Pleasures of Sad Music: A Systematic Review
What is sadness?
Sadness results from a perceived loss, such as the loss of a valued object, the loss of health, the loss of status or of a relationship, or the loss of a loved one. It is a complex bodily and neural state, resulting in feelings of low energy, social withdrawal, low self-worth, and a sense of limited horizon of the future.Frontiers | The Pleasures of Sad Music: A Systematic Review
This is one of those studies that help me understand my reaction to music. I sometimes find myself crying when I listen to emotive songs. Especially during savasana, I’m more likely to feel deeply with certain music. After Wiki, our dog died, listening to music and creating a playlist helped us grieve.
Just to add to some of the benefits of listening to sad music, it not only allows me to tap into emotions, but it makes me feel connected to humanity. I’m in awe of the artists that have put in the time and effort to create and share their art. For those moments, when I can’t quite put into words how I’m feeling, lyrics and tunes allow me to understand my own state of being. It reminds me that we all feel similar emotions or have gone through similar experiences.
Sometimes, our feelings can be confusing, overwhelming, and dizzying. It helps to know that for most of us, we have music that we can access easily from our phones.
Tell me about your experience with music and emotions: Do you often listen to music when you’re feeling down? How does it change your mood? Let me know at firstname.lastname@example.org. I may use your contribution in a future article or newsletter.