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Why Do We Listen To Sad Music?

Jul 24, 13 Why Do We Listen To Sad Music?

You just went through a really bad day, so you turn to music to feel better. It would make logical sense for you to turn on a happy song to influence your emotions to feel better or forget about the situation that is distressing you. Ironically, however, it is a really high probability that you will start off with a sad song that relates to your situation. Don’t worry, the majority of the human race will make the same choice, and thanks to a group of paid Japanese researchers, we now know why.

A group of four Japanese researchers, Ai Kawakami, Kiyoshi Furukawa, Kentaro Katahira, and Kazuo Okanoya were asked to discover why we human beings like to listen to sad songs when we are sad, instead of trying to use music to distract ourselves from our current situation. They put together a study involving forty-four people to understand how our brain reacts when it comes to sad songs. The participants were asked to listen to one of three songs. The songs were lesser known classical pieces; they did this purposefully to avoid possible personal connections from the participants to the songs. The patients listened to the song in both a major and then a minor key. The researchers asked the participants to do two things while they listened to the piece:

1) to identify what emotions specifically they felt during the song; and

2) to predict what other people would feel as they listened to the same song.

Most participants would predict that others would feel tragic emotions and deep sadness when listening to the sad songs (the ones played in the minor key); yet when they listened to the song themselves they did not experience this. The researchers reported that “The listeners felt less gloomy, meditative, and miserable as well as more fascinated, dear, in love, merry, animated, and inclined to dance when they listened to sad music compared with their actual perceptions of the same music.”

David Huron wrote a book called Sweet Anticipation: Music and The Psychology of Expectation that could possibly explain this phenomenon. In his book, he says that we are creatures that anticipate certain things; we have an expectation for every single event. This is no different for us when it comes to music. We expect to have a specific reaction to a song we are listening to. Human beings tend to automatically assume we will feel sad when listening to a sad song, and when it doesn’t make us sadder than we were originally, it makes us feel as though we feel better. It is like when you expect something to go horribly wrong; when it doesn’t, even if the experience wasn’t completely pleasant, since it was less horrible than what we expected it to be, we feel content and relieved.

One of my theories on this action of ours is that when we listen to sad songs, we seem to connect with the artist since they seem to know how it feels to be heartbroken, so we understand. I don’t know if this is true for everyone, but at least for me, personally, when I’m pissed or sad I don’t want to be around super joyous people. I also think we like to feel heartbroken and feel the heartbreak of others. When listening to sad music, we can relate to the emotions felt by the artist, but they don’t affect us personally, so we can just sit back and enjoy the flow of emotions the music creates.

Image Credit: Thinkstock.com

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  • http://www.online.de Bernd Willimek

    Why do Minor Keys sound sad?
    If you want to answer the question, why minor chords sound sad, there is the problem, that some minor chords don’t sound sad. The solution is the Theory of Musical Equilibration. It says, that music is not able to transmit emotions directly. Music can just convey processes of will, but the music listener fills this processes of will with emotions. Similar, when you watch a dramatic movie in television, the movie cannot transmit emotions directly, but processes of will. The spectator perceives the processes of will dyed with emotions – identifying with the protagonist. When you listen music you identify too, but with an anonymous will now.
    If you perceive a major chord, you normally identify with the will “Yes, I want to…”. If you perceive a minor chord, you identify normally with the will “I don’t want any more…”. If you play the minor chord softly, you connect the will “I don’t want any more…” with a feeling of sadness. If you play the minor chord loudly, you connect the same will with a feeling of rage. You distinguish in the same way as you would distinguish, if someone would say the words “I don’t want anymore…” the first time softly and the second time loudly.
    This operations of will in the music were unknown until the Theory of Musical Equilibration discovered them. And therefore many previous researches in psychology of music failed. If you want more information about music and emotions and get the answer, why music touches us emotionally, you can download the essay “Music and Emotions – Research on the Theory of Musical Equilibration” for free. You can get it on the link:
    http://www.willimekmusic.de/music-and-emotions.pdf
    Enjoy reading
    Bernd Willimek