The mind-altering effects of listening to sad songs

The Tweet: “Listening to sad songs actually creates positive emotions.”

According to one study, the reason we keep listening to sad songs is because they evoke positive emotions. Sad songs were more likely to be associated with romantic emotions. The research concluded that sadness created by music is unlike sadness associated with real life events, and is far more likely to produce a positive reaction.

Scientists at Tokyo University of the Arts and the RIKEN Brain Institute asked participants to listen to music, rate each song for how sad it was and choose from a list of 62 emotive words the feelings the songs evoked. The researchers then compared the emotive words with the songs sadness rating. They noticed that the songs rated as the saddest tended to be linked with words associated with romance, inspiration or other emotions, such as ‘wistful’, ‘nostalgic’, and ‘tender’, that we don’t immediately think of being sad.

But what makes a song sad in the first place? According to an article in the Wall Street Journal, British psychologist John Sloboda identified a common factor in sad songs. Sloboda asked participants to choose particular passages in sad songs that were the most likely to draw a tear, and then looked for similarities in the music. He identified a note, called an appoggiatura, a bit like a grace note, that adds a quick flourish to a piece. This ornamental note has a dissonant sound that creates tension in the listener that needs to be resolved. When we listen to music our brain is constantly trying to predict what will come next and this anticipation intrigues us; “Our brains are wired to pick up the music that we expect,” says Sloboda on NPR Music, “and generally music is consonant rather than dissonant, so we expect a nice chord. So when that chord is not quite what we expect, it gives you a little bit of an emotional frisson, because it’s strange and unexpected.”

Like with Sloboda’s research, the scientist from Tokyo spoke of anticipation in their study. The reason that a sad song might produce positive emotions is because we recognise a sad piece of music, and are therefore expecting it to sound sad, and when this expectation is met we feel pleased. This is called ‘sweet anticipation’; “Even if listeners experience negative emotions when listening to sad music, sweet anticipation might still allow them to feel positive emotions,” conclude the researchers. We can recognise sad music immediately from its key. We have strong associations between the minor key and sad music according to a 2008 study. So if we are immediately expecting a song to sound sad to us, and this expectation is realised, we are satisfied and can enjoy the sad piece of music for what it is; a piece of art.

Image: NRK P3 / Flickr
This post was first published on The Untweetable Truth (21/11/2014)
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