“Sad” music is the best music. Who’s with me on this? I spent middle and high school listening almost exclusively to The Cure and Thom Yorke’s wounded-baby-bird voice, and now I can’t stop listening to Wit’s End. That moody theme music from Blade Runner sometimes appears in my dreams. Sure, I listen to all that punk, hip-hop, smiley indie garbage, and of course an embarrassing smidge of top 40, but nothing ever seems to beat putting on the headphones for a wallowing self-pity fest, right?
Why does this happen? Why would we want to be sad?
The fact that we get pleasure from any music, let alone sad music, is a complicated question in the first place. Valorie Salimpoor and a team of researchers published a great article last year in the journal Nature that showed the connection of music to the release of the all-powerful pleasure chemical dopamine in the brain. They argued that “intense emotional responses to music involve ancient reward circuitry.”
Many aspects of music excite and pleasure us, from the basic rhythm itself to the tension and resolution of melody and harmony. It has also been established that we feel the emotions communicated in music as we would in real life. That is, peppy music makes us happy and sad music actually makes us feel somewhat sad.
Like any emotional reaction, the feeling sad music often elicits is a complex blend of emotions. In a recent paper in the journal Music Perception, psychologists Jonna K. Vuoskoski, William F. Thompson, Doris McIlwain, Tuomas Eerola argue that the sad music doesn’t just make you experience sadness, but also “nostalgia,” “peacefulness,” and “wonder.” And those who enjoy sad music the most, they argue, often have empathetic, touchy personalities:
The dominant emotion evoked by sad music appears to be interpreted as sadness by the listeners, but such music also evokes a range of more positive, aesthetic emotions. Sad music appealed most to those who have a heightened responsiveness to the experiences of others [and] who experience intense emotions in response to sad music.
Eerola and his team played their subjects various forms of “negative” and “positive” sounding music, and used instrumental movie soundtracks (controlling for lyrical content) that the individual subjects weren’t already familiar with. They used four categories: “Scary” (i.e. the Alien theme), “happy” (Oliver Twist theme), “tender” (Pride and Prejudice theme), and “sad” (The English Patient theme). Obviously there is some overlap in the emotional profile of this music (themes can surely be both “sad” and “tender”), though I would guess there is no music that only expresses one single emotion.
Subjects completed surveys to describe their emotional reactions to the different songs, and also took a standard personality test. Sad music won in the enjoyment department, and scary music lost (but how great is that Alien theme?). Sad music was also linked with the more empathetic of the subjects, as measured by the personality test.
The jury is surely out regarding why we enjoy sad music. It’s clearly a complicated answer. On the one hand, sad music can give us the same kind of pleasure we derive from other enjoyable music, happy, tender or otherwise. In that sense, we are paradoxically both sad and happy when we listen to sad music. Furthermore, sad music seems to have something to do with empathy; empathy is a strong trait in humans (it’s often thought of as an emotional tool central to cooperation, friendship, and love), and it makes evolutionary sense that it would be reinforced, in this case by some kind of vague sense that someone else out there, perhaps the musician, perhaps the musicians other fans, feels the same things you do. That’s comforting, right?
There are countless lines of evidence showing that humans gravitate towards “sad” art in general. Canonical novels, plays, and films are often tragic. Just look at most of Western religious art. And those old Daoist paintings have a wistful sadness to them. Shit, even cave paintings have a kind of droopy aura.
I guess our species is just bummed out.