Under the Hood

Psychology Of Music: How Sad Songs Inspire A Mix Of Pain And Pleasure And Evoke Memories

Music can be a powerful presence in many aspects of people’s lives. It’s second only perhaps to smell in its power to bring back memories from decades ago and recall events or people you had very nearly forgotten. Many people listen to it to get pumped up for a sporting event or workout. Some people choose music because they want to dance, and some appreciate certain songs for the skill of the artists. Most of all, music can have an effect on your mood: Fun, happy songs can cheer you up, while depressing ones can make you more melancholy. Researchers from the United Kingdom and Finland decided to take a look at these sad songs and the effect they can have on people. Unexpectedly, the majority of people who turn to sad songs to evoke memories enjoy their experience.

The team, led by Professor Tuomas Eerola of Durahm University, wanted to dig into how some people hate and avoid sad music while others cherish the emotions and memories it inspires.

“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,” said Tuomas, who works as a professor of music cognition, in a statement.

The study suggested that the majority of people who listen to sad songs end up feeling either positive because they enjoy the music or comforted because the tunes bring back memories. A sizeable portion of the experiment’s 2,436 participants reported pain associated with sad music, though, which was always associated with a deep personal loss like a divorce or the death of a loved one.

“Such intense experiences seemed to be mentally and even physically straining and thus far from pleasurable,” said study coauthor Dr. Henna-Rikka Petrola, of the University of Jyväskylä in Finland.

sad A sad song can bring up both tragic memories and feelings of comfort. Pixabay Public Domain

For the many listeners that reported enjoyment though, it wasn’t that the sad music made them happy, but that it reminded them of certain people or relationships in their lives. The researchers call this “enjoyable sadness,” and note that the experience did not change with gender or age. It was, however, amplified by an interest or expertise in music.

The researchers said each emotional reaction to sad music may be linked to psychological mechanisms and reactions that may, at first, seem unrelated. Eerola said this demonstrates the functional nature of such experiences, meaning that things as abstract as an emotional reaction to music can still have a basis in brain structures and neurology.

“These 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,” Eerola said. “The findings also have implication for understanding the paradoxical nature of enjoyment of negative emotions within the arts and fiction.”

Source: Eerola T, Peltola H. Memorable Experiences with Sad Music—Reasons, Reactions and Mechanisms of Three Types of Experiences. Plos ONE. 2016.

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