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Sad music affects different people in profoundly different ways, study finds

Among the findings: Older people were more likely to say sad music left them feeling comforted; young adults and women were more likely to say it evoked negative emotions.

British pop singer Adele performing the ballad “Someone Like You.”

For most people, sad music helps lighten their mood by evoking pleasurable or comforting memories. But for others, such music can produce intense negative emotions — emotions that are not cathartic but just plain painful.

Those are the findings of an interesting study published earlier this summer in the journal PLOS One.

“Previous research in music psychology and film studies has emphasized the puzzling pleasure that people experience when engaging with tragic art,” said lead research Tuomas Eerola, a professor of music cognition at Durham University in the United Kingdom, in a statement released with the study. “However, there are people who absolutely hate sad-sounding music and avoid listening to it.”

“In our research, we wanted to investigate this wide spectrum of experiences that people have with sad music, and find reasons for both listening to and avoiding that kind of music,” he added.

Three types of listeners

For the study, Eerola and Heena-Riikka Peltola, a music professor at the University of Jyvaskyla in Finland, conducted three surveys of more than 2,400 adults in the UK and Finland. The surveys asked detailed questions, including why the participants listened to sad music, when they listened to it, and what their experiences were with it.

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Sad music was defined in the study as “music that can be described as sad by the listener.” It is “sad-sounding,” or has a “sad atmosphere” within the music, or “disseminates [a] sad narrative” through its lyrics.

The surveys revealed that people’s experiences in relationship to sad music fall into three broad categories. Listening to sad music sometimes leads to feelings of intense pleasure, a category the researchers call “Sweet Sorrow.” People in this category said that the music evoked transcendence, wonder, satisfaction, pleasant melancholia and even joy.

For others, listening to sad music conjured up feelings of comfort. People in this category — which the researchers dubbed “Comforting Sorrow” — said the music made them feel tender, peaceful and sad but elated.

Both of these reactions to the music  — “Sweet Sorrow” and “Comforting Sorrow” — were accompanied by positive mood changes.

But a significant number of people in the survey reported that listening to sad music was a painful experience, almost always because the music was a noncomforting reminder of personal loss, such as the death of a loved one, a divorce, a romantic breakup, a struggle with an illness, the loss of a job or some other significant adversity in their life.

People in this category — called “Grief-Stricken Sorrow” by the researchers — said the music left them with feelings of powerlessness, anxiety, self-pity, sadness and grief.

“Such intense experiences seemed to be mentally and even physically straining and thus far from pleasurable,” said Petrola.

Other findings

The positive experiences were by far the most frequent in this study, but as many as 12 percent of the surveys’ respondents said that listening to sad music altered their mood for the worse, leaving them feeling depressed. 

Here are some other findings from the study:

  • Older people were more likely to say sad music left them feeling comforted, while young adults and women were more likely to say it evoked negative emotions.
  • Men and women tended to have different reasons for purposely engaging with sad music. Among the top reasons for women were to reminisce about past events or people, to feel connected with others and to feel closer with loved ones. The top reasons for men were to experience new emotions and to share music preferences with others.
  • A significant proportion of the surveys’ participants said they had reacted physically to sad music. Up to 35 percent said they had experienced “chills or goose bumps”; up to 45 percent said they had cried “a little” (just wet eyes); and up to 50 percent said they had “cried a lot.” Women tended to report more crying than the men.
  • Finnish (but not British) women in the study generally reported a more intense emotional response to the music than did men. People with musical training or expertise also tended to report more intense responses.
  • The surveys’ participants judged sad instrumental music as more pleasant and beautiful than sad music with lyrics.

Limitations and implications

This study has several important limitations. To begin with, it relied on surveys. Furthermore, the participants came from only two countries. It’s not clear whether the findings would be relevant elsewhere, such as in the United States.

Still, the findings are provocative.

“The results help us to pinpoint the ways people regulate their mood with the help of music, as well as how music rehabilitation and music therapy might tap into these processes of comfort, relief and enjoyment,” said Eerola. 

The findings also have implications beyond music — “for understanding the paradoxical nature of enjoyment of negative emotions with the arts and fiction,” he added.

However, as this study’s findings suggest, not everyone finds solace or aesthetic enjoyment in works of art that evoke sadness — yet more evidence, perhaps, that we should be less judgmental about what others choose to read, view or listen to.

FMI: PLOS One is an open-access journal, so you can read the study in full on the journal’s website