Finding joy in sad music sounds oxymoronic - however, few people claim to steer clear of tunes that deal with heavy topics in minor keys.

For instance, take the Australian songwriter Gotye's "Somebody That You Used to Know" - the breakup elegy that in 2012 earned the mindboggling title "Most Streamed Song in U.S History," according to statistic from Spotify.

Lachrymose pop hits follow in a long line of emotional self-harm that dates back to Ancient Greece. But why do we put ourselves through these ordeals?

According to new research conducted by scientists from the Tokyo University of the Arts and the RIKEN Brain Science Institute, the artificial tragedy of sad songs may actually evoke the opposite feeling in the listener.

In an experiment, the researchers asked 44 volunteers to listen to two pieces of sad music and one piece of happy music. While some of the volunteers were musicians themselves, others had received no musical training at all.

The pieces were Glinka's "La Separation" in F minor, Blumenfeld's Etude "Sur Mer" in G minor, and Granados's Allegro de Concierto in G major. To isolate the "happiness" and "sadness" of the keys, the minor-key pieces were also played in major keys, and vice versa.

Using a set of keywords, the participants were then asked to assess their emotional state and the impact the music had on it.

While listening to the minor-key pieces, participants described their feelings as contradictory, as the perceived tragedy of the music did not align with their own emotional state.

"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," Professor Ai Kawakami wrote in the study. "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."

This simultaneity of emotion appears to be crucial to understanding the joy of sad music. The philosopher Aristotle proposed a similar argument in his Poetics, which claims that our fascination with tragedy hinges on our simultaneous understanding of its unreality - the immediate awareness that representation, or "mimesis," is at play.

In this sense, the appeal of sad music is vaguely analogous to the appeal of a dangerous animal in a cage.

"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," the researchers added.

Source:

Kawakami A, Furukawa K, Katahira K and Okanoya K (2013) Sad music induces pleasant emotion. Front. Psychol. 4:311. doi: 10.3389/fpsyg.2013.00311