Sad Music Makes You Happy
July 12, 2013

Can Sad Music Make You Happy?

Jedidiah Becker for - Your Universe Online

How is it that maestros of melancholy as diverse as Frederic Chopin and Elliott Smith ever found an audience for their music? Why would anyone deliberately subject themselves to melodies that make them teary-eyed and nostalgic? After all, who likes being sad?

New research from Japanese scientists at Tokyo University of the Arts and RIKEN Brain Science Institute indicates that it isn't quite that simple. According to their study, certain aspects of depressing music actually evoke positive feelings in the mind of the listener.

Researcher Ai Kawakami and colleagues studied a cohort of 44 volunteers consisting of both musicians and non-musicians. Each participant had to listen to two pieces of sad music and one piece of happy music. They were then asked to use a specific set of keywords to rate their emotional state and how they felt about the music they had just heard.

The sad music included "La Separation" in F minor from the famous early 19th-century Russian composer Mikhail Glinka and "Sur Mer" in G minor from his fellow countryman Felix Blumenfeld. For the happy music, the researchers chose Granados' Allegro de Concierto in G major. However, in order to control for the 'happy effect' usually produced by music written in major keys, they also played the minor key pieces in major keys and vice versa.

The team explained that sad music tended to bring out conflicting emotions in the participants because they found the music itself to be tragic and unhappy despite the fact that they themselves were not feeling that way prior to listening to the music.

"In general, sad music induces sadness in listeners, and sadness is regarded as an unpleasant emotion. If sad music actually evokes only unpleasant emotion, we would not listen to it," the researchers wrote in a report of their findings.

However, when it comes to melancholy music, it isn't only about sadness, and there are other emotional elements at play in even the most somber of melodies.

"Music that is perceived as sad actually induces romantic emotion as well as sad emotion. And people, regardless of their musical training, experience this ambivalent emotion to listen to the sad music," they explained.

And what's more, unlike real-life sadness, a sense of melancholy that is experienced through art - be it in literature, painting or music - can actually create pleasant feelings associated with romance. The authors suspect that this is due to the fact that artistic sadness does not represent a real threat to a person's psychological state. They even noted that this kind of induced artistic sadness could be used to help individuals cope with the negative feelings they encounter in day-to-day life.

"Emotion experienced by music has no direct danger or harm unlike the emotion experienced in everyday life. Therefore, we can even enjoy unpleasant emotion such as sadness. If we suffer from unpleasant emotion evoked through daily life, sad music might be helpful to alleviate negative emotion," they added.

In short, this may help explain that bittersweet emotional catharsis you experience when you can't stop listening to your favorite sad song in the days and weeks after a breakup.

The results of the team's study were recently published in the open-access journal Frontiers in Psychology.