Why do we listen to sad music ?

Music can make us sad and yet we get pleasure to listening to it. A paradox that has intrigued researchers for years.

For scientists, music is considered one of the means available way for humans to manage their emotions and moods. It amplifies the joy when they dancing together at a party. It provokes surprise and excitement, or, conversely, causes grief when they listen to sad music, that is, music with minor chords and a slow rhythm.

Sad music: pain that does good

Researchers Henna-Riikka Peltola and Tuomas Eerola have shown in a study that sad music actually causes hearers pain, grief and melancholy. After listening to this “negative” music, the listener’s feel better. It is the “paradox of tragedy”, where one draws from the well-being to feel sadness.

For their part, Annemieke Van den Tol and Jane Edwards argue that listening to sad music helps to overcome a hard situation by embracing sadness rather than by denying it. This would correspond to a cognitive strategy to overcome the bad time. This is what psychologists call : “cathartic pain “.

From a neurochemical point of view, David Huron has shown that a sad event releases prolactin, a hormone that causes a sense of comfort. Feeling through music a real sadness, but cut off from a traumatic event, would make it possible to start the circuit of consolation and thus to derive pleasure from it.

References : 

  • The pleasures of sad music: a systematic review Matthew E. Sachs, Antonio Damasio, and Assal Habibi Front. Neurosci. 2015; 9; p404 ;
  • Peltola, H., & Eerola, T. (2016). Fifty shades of blue: Classification of music-evoked sadness. Musicae Scientiae vol. 20; 1; pp 84-102 ;
  • Listening to sad music in adverse situations: How music selection strategies relate to self-regulatory goals, listening effects, and mood enhancement, Annemieke J.M. Van den Tol, Jane Edwards Psychology of Music; Vol 43; Issue 4; pp. 473 – 494 ;
  • Why is sad music pleasurable? A possible role for prolactin. David Huron, Musicae Scientiae; vol. 15; 2; pp. 146-158.

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