Sunday, November 9, 2014

Can Listening to Sad Music Make Us Happy?

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.”

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.


Stacey U. said...

Thank you for an engaging article. I have often thought about our relationship with music which we perceive as sad, as it might have something to do with humans’ affinity for affect, or at least a safe and controlled desire for it. But the ideas raised about reward are also very compelling, perhaps also somehow connected with pleasure. It never occurred to me that things like empathy or imagination could be considered as a reward. But it’s certainly no punishment, so maybe it satisfies some sort of evolutionary “need to feel” on a deeper level in a way that feels rewarding.

I do concur with the rewards of emotion regulation and no real-life implications, though. The former is no surprise, as people are known to use music for catharsis and emotional purging, to kind of “get it all out of your system”. The reward of no real-life implications, however, is the most intriguing to me. I guess it’s similar to why we watch horror movies—emotion can be a form of entertainment. Now that I think about it, a blog post I wrote called “Heavy Metal Music and the Brain” directly speaks to these two reward systems. Listening to heavy metal, which is perceived as a loud/angry/violent style of music, gives listeners an outlet for getting rid of any negative emotions they might be having (reward of emotion regulation). Alternatively, many who listen to heavy metal merely exercise the aggressive feelings within themselves, without actually having any outside provocation except for the music (reward of no real-life implications).

Bradley Christensen said...

Thanks for posting this Brian! It was funny to come across this post, because just by coincidence, I had a discussion today with a pianist on this very topic. I have been given a piece to sing in a repertoire studies class, and the song I have been assigned deals with a poem that while typically perceived as sad in nature, may actually have an underlying quality of hope and reflection. It depends on how one interprets the text. While it doesn’t directly relate to your posting, it has a certain link. For this reason, I enjoyed reading what you wrote, including the comments made by Stacey as well.

I completely agree that sad music can offer an emotional reward. And while empathy might not be regarded as a pleasure, it can create a connection between ourselves and the music, which in turn, may in fact make us feel good. Maybe even, happy… Also, I agree with your reservations about the effectiveness of this survey. When a survey such as this is done online, how can it take into account the emotional state of 722 respondents prior to the experiment? I would ask if the emotional responses vary between ethnicities and ages, for I believe ones environment affects the kinds of emotions that can be evoked, how it is experienced, and how we convey our emotions to others. For instance, and I say this with insight into British culture from past generations (thanks to my grandparents), it wasn’t ‘proper’ to discuss ones feelings with others and to show too much, or any emotion.

Hopefully, more effective experiments can be created! This is an interesting topic, and your final statement is spot on! There is “more to be learned about how interacting with music on a personal level can contribute to regulating moods and emotions.”

Francois said...

Hi Brian, your posting reminds me of a quote from F. Schubert.“When I wished to sing of love, it turned to sorrow. And when I wished to sing of sorrow, it was transformed for me into love.”

For me, listening to ‘sad’ music can be compared to homeopathy. I agree with the general idea of the title “Can listening to sad music make us happy?”, but I believe that there is something beyond the state of happiness or unhappiness. It looks like all musical experiences (including the Heavy Metal musical experiences as well!) are processes that ultimately bring us to a transcendent state. Thank you for sharing the posting!

Brian said...

Bradley, your point about the British norms of sharing feelings with others is interesting. If I recall, this study did not include any questions about people's normal emotion-sharing practices. Maybe this kind of question is difficult to ask in a survey. But it is certainly something worth looking into. For instance, I wonder if people who are raised in more "emotionally conservative" cultures might get more enjoyment from sampling emotions by listening to music? This type of information might be easier to learn though interviews or observational methods. Although I can imagine a question that asked people to rate their comfort with sharing emotions with others on a scale, just to get a baseline.

Branden Kelly said...

Hi Brian,

I will try and answer the title question based on my opinion. First, it depends on your interpretation of sad music. Normally in my case, if the music reminds me of something in my life that makes me sad, it is sad music. If the piece is clearly intended to be sad but it doesn't make me relive sad experiences or think of loved ones that I've lost, I normally turn to the musical aspects of the song in order to connect with it. If this is the case, and the musical aspects of the song (for example, rise and fall of melody, singable, beautiful chording, etc), then that usually makes me happy. So it's not the message that makes me happy but it's the musical elements in the song that does the trick.

angie said...

Fascinating study, Brian! I agree with you in that, a mixed research method including qualitative data and real-time experimental methods may be much more beneficial in this research. I wonder how sad music was measured in the study. Was it the tempo? Was it the Key? Did the sad music consist of lyrics? And what were the sad songs generally about?
Also, did the study mention how emotions were measured? I’m curious because I feel that subjects may or may not be able to measure and/or realize their own emotions at times. There are times I’m sure, I am not able to realize my emotions at the heat of the moment! The study seems as if each participant may reveal different emotions, chemicals, or hormones each day.
As you said, perhaps a different approach of using methods will be beneficial in this research.