Under the Hood

Sad Music Triggers Emotional Response In Empathetic Listeners; Moving Songs Affect Compassionate People

Have you ever felt particularly moved by a melancholy melody? Recent research published in Frontiers in Psychology suggests that it just might be a sign of your extraordinary empathy.

Finnish researchers conducted a quirky sort of experiment with 102 volunteers. They had them listen to an unfamiliar piece of sad instrumental music and then evaluated their emotional responses in different ways, including measuring the variation between heartbeats. The researchers categorized three broad types of response — a relaxed, peaceful sadness; an anxious, nervous sadness; and an intense, almost transcendental sadness. They also discovered a pattern: Those who had higher levels of empathy were more likely to experience the intense type of sadness, while there were no clear relationship with the other types.

"It has previously been known that people experience paradoxical pleasure when engaging with tragic art, but this seems to be more pronounced in those who have a heightened ability to engage with other people's emotions,"said the study's lead author Dr. Tuomas Eerola, currently a professor of music cognition at Durham University in England, in a statement. "Conversely, people with low empathy do not report feeling moved after listening to sad music."

Eerola and his colleagues took pains to eliminate any other causes for the volunteers’ reactions by measuring their baseline heartbeats, blood pressure, and other factors that could influence their heart's reaction to the music.

"By using unfamiliar, instrumental sad music in our experiment, we were able to rule out most other possible sources of emotion such as specific memories and lyrics.” explained study co-author Jonna Vuoskoski from the University of Oxford. ”Thus, participants' emotional responses must have been brought about by the music itself."

Similarly, the researchers speculated that it may take a personal recollection for music to make us sad in a less uplifting way, such as a familiar ballad that evokes memories of a bad break-up. Interestingly enough, women were more likely to experience moving sadness, possibly because they’re more socially conditioned and permitted to express empathy towards others, particularly when it comes to imagining themselves in someone else’s shoes. 

The researchers hope that their results demonstrate the unique potential that music and other kinds of art have to reach out and change our hearts — a potential that could have important implications not only in the realm of inspiration but medicine as well.

The researchers concluded: “While we currently do not know all the details of the transformations involved in this process, identifying the correct pieces of puzzle is the first step in unraveling the perennial paradox of fiction and creating better-informed practices of arts-based therapy and rehabilitation.”

Source: Eerola T, Vuoskoski J, Kautiainen H . Being Moved by Unfamiliar Sad Music Is Associated with High Empathy. Frontiers in Psychology. 2016.

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