Brain and Body

Does Sad Music Make Humans Happy?

December 1, 2015 | Reece Alvarez

Young boy at the piano keyboard.
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Contrary to popular perception, listening to sad music may actually make people happy.

If you have ever listened to the same sad song over and over, you may have asked yourself why?

Well, a study by Japanese researchers at Tokyo University of the Arts suggests that sad music might actually evoke positive emotions as well as sadness, and may be a good way of coping.

"Music that is perceived as sad actually induces romantic emotion as well as sad emotion," said university researcher Ai Kawakami and colleagues, also of the RIKEN Brain Science Institute in Japan.

“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,” the researchers wrote in their study published in the journal Frontiers in Psychology.

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According to the study, Kawakami and colleagues asked 44 volunteers, including both musicians and non-specialists, to listen to two pieces of sad music and one piece of happy music. Each participant was required to use a set of keywords to rate both their perception of the music and their emotional state.

The sad pieces of music included Glinka's "La Séparation" in F minor and Blumenfeld's Etude "Sur Mer" in G minor. The happy music piece was Granados' “Allegro de Concierto” in G major. To control for the "happy" effect of major key, they played the minor-key pieces in major key, and vice versa.

The researchers explained that sad music evoked contradictory emotions because the study participants tended to describe the sad music as more tragic, less romantic, and less blithe than they actually felt while listening to it.

Unlike sadness in daily life, sadness experienced through art actually feels pleasant, possibly because the latter does not pose an actual threat to our safety, according to the study.

"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,” the researchers said. “If we suffer from unpleasant emotion evoked through daily life, sad music might be helpful to alleviate negative emotion."

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