Liila Taruffi and Stefan Koelsch’s (2014) recent study explores the relationship between music and sadness. Sadness is generally considered to be an undesirable emotion, and most people prefer to avoid feelings of sadness. However, people seem to experience some sort of pleasure and enjoyment in listening to sad-sounding music. If sadness is a feeling to be avoided, what explains our attraction to sad music?
The authors introduce two different theoretical approaches to frame the study. First they describe Levinson’s (1997) eight-part philosophical approach to sadness and music. This framework is based on the notion that listening to sad music can offer different kinds of emotional rewards, such as catharsis, savoring feeling, or emotional communion with others. Second, they discuss Panksepp’s (1995) and Huron’s (2011) findings, which both explain that people may experience more pleasurable experiences listening to sad music because it causes the brain to release more neurochemicals and hormones than happy music.
Through an online survey, the study engaged with 722 respondents from various ethnic backgrounds and age groups in order to understand why and how people engage with sad music, what kinds of emotions are evoked by sad music, and how an affinity for sad music might be linked to personality traits (Taruffi and Koelsch 2014, 2–3). As a control, a similar survey about happy music was also administered.
The results showed several common dimensions of the rewarding aspects of music-evoked sadness among participants. These included the reward of imagination (imagining similar expressive abilities as the music), the reward of emotion regulation (feeling better after listening to sad music), the reward of empathy (empathizing with the music as if it were a person), and the reward of no real-life implications (enjoyment of feeling sadness without real-life reasons) (Taruffi and Koelsch 2014, 4). Participants reported that the desire to listen to sad music occurs across a wide range of situations and emotional states (Taruffi and Koelsch 2014, 5–6).
The findings of this study might seem paradoxical because happiness is considered a key factor in people’s well being implying that sad feelings are something to be avoided. Nevertheless, the results of the survey suggest that sad music is used for numerous reasons under a variety of circumstances. The authors briefly discuss the limitations of the methods used in the study, admitting that one flaw of surveys like theirs is that retrospective self-reporting can be inaccurate because of memory bias (Taruffi and Koelsch 2014, 15). In contrast, they explain a new method called the Experience Sampling Method that takes advantage of mobile device applications through which participants can monitor their emotional states throughout the day in real-time (Taruffi and Koelsch 2014, 15). However, this method is not explained in much detail, so it is unclear whether it might improve further studies on music and emotion, or perhaps introduce new biases. For example, depending on real-time reporting might raise the costs of participation compared with a one-time survey, and providing compensation to users to encourage participation may also change self-reported happiness, if respondents are happy to be earning a reward for participation.
In addition, I am not convinced about the effectiveness of a questionnaire when it comes to capturing the complexities of emotional states. The boundaries of emotions are not rigid and frequently overlap, making them hard to quantify. Furthermore, everyone experiences feelings and emotions differently, so results of surveys do not generalize well. For example, different personalities or cultural factors may lead some respondents to over or understate their relative sadness or happiness. For these reasons, I think a mixed research method that includes both more qualitative data gathering techniques or some real-time experimental methods might lead to more conclusive results. It is possible to measure biological responses related to emotion through brain scans and other types of biofeedback. Facial expressions and body postures are also common indicators of affect that can be measured by a skilled observer. Of course, these kinds of studies have their own limitations. For example, they must be planned in advance and so there can be no way to control for the base emotional states of the incoming participants.
Despite the difficulties of studying the emotional effects of music, it is an important research area. The positive psychological and social effects of participating in music practice are already well understood. But more can be learned about how interacting with music on a more personal level can contribute to regulating moods and emotions.
Huron, David. 2011. “Why Is Sad Music Pleasurable? A Possible Role for Prolactin.” Musicae Scientiae 15 (2): 146–58.
Levinson, Jerrold. 1997. “Music and Negative Emotion.” http://philpapers.org/rec/LEVMAN-2.
Panksepp, Jaak. 1995. “The Emotional Sources of‘ Chills’ Induced by Music.” Music Perception, 171–207.
Taruffi, Liila, and Stefan Koelsch. 2014. “The Paradox of Music-Evoked Sadness: An Online Survey.” PLoS ONE 9 (10): e110490. doi:10.1371/journal.pone.0110490.