Why Sad Songs Feel Good: Music’s Emotional Paradox

Summary: A new study explores why listening to sad music can be pleasurable. The research involved 50 music students who found that removing the element of sadness from their chosen music decreased their enjoyment, indicating a direct link between sadness and pleasure.

This phenomenon, described as a paradox where negative emotions enhance the musical experience, challenges previous assumptions that sadness in music is enjoyed only indirectly through feelings of being moved. The study suggests that experiencing a range of emotions through music in a safe environment may help us navigate real-world emotions.

Key Facts:

  1. 82% of participants reported decreased enjoyment of music when the element of sadness was removed, suggesting a direct pleasure from sadness in music.
  2. The study used a novel approach by allowing participants to self-select music that evoked sadness, enhancing the relevance of the findings.
  3. Previous theories posited that the pleasure from sad music came indirectly through being moved, but this study suggests sadness itself enhances musical enjoyment.

Source: University of New South Wales

A new study proposes a novel theory of why listening to sad music can make us feel good.

Many people report that the music they love can also make them feel sad. It’s something that has puzzled music researchers, who have long wondered how an activity that produces a negative emotion can be so eagerly sought out.

Now, a new study suggests that for some of us, it could be that we might actually enjoy the sadness. The research, published in the journal PLOS ONE, suggests negative emotions felt when listening to music can produce pleasure.

This shows a woman listening to music.
“In other words, being moved triggers sadness, and sadness triggers being moved.” Credit: Neuroscience News

“It’s paradoxical to think you could enjoy something that makes you feel a negative emotion,” says Professor Emery Schubert, the author of the study from the Empirical Musicology Laboratory in the School of the Arts & Media, UNSW Arts, Design & Architecture.

“But this research shows the first empirical evidence that sadness can positively affect the enjoyment of music, directly.”

Adding to music enjoyment

For the study, 50 participants—consisting primarily of undergraduate music students—self-selected a piece of sadness-evoking music that they loved, which included classics from Ludwig van Beethoven to the modern hits of Taylor Swift. They were not explicitly instructed to choose music where they enjoyed the sadness.

Participants were then asked to imagine if their sadness could be “removed” when listening to the music—which the majority self-reported they could do.

“We know that many people are quite apt when it comes to thought experiments, so it’s a reasonable approach to use and, at worst, it should produce no results,” Prof. Schubert says.

After the imagined removal of sadness, participants were asked if they liked the piece of music any differently: 82% said that removing the sadness reduced their enjoyment of the music.

“The findings suggest that sadness felt when listening to music might actually be liked and can enhance the pleasure of listening to it,” Prof. Schubert says.

Prof. Schubert says there could be many reasons why people enjoy music that makes them sad.

“One explanation relates to play,” Prof. Schubert says. “Experiencing a wide range of emotions in a more or less safe environment could help us learn how to deal with what we encounter in the world.”

Sadness and ‘being moved’

The research also discusses the implications for findings of previous studies that suggest sadness cannot be enjoyed when listening to music but is instead mediated by a complex feeling with positive aspects called “being moved.”

“Previous studies refer to an ‘indirect effect hypothesis,’ which means that people may experience sadness, but it is something else they enjoy—being moved,” Prof. Schubert says. “Because being moved is a mixed feeling with positive and negative aspects.”

A further 53 participants in a control group were asked to report music they loved that they deemed “moving.” The control group participants reported feeling sadness in addition to being moved.

“It was previously thought that when people felt sadness in response to music they enjoyed, they were really experiencing being moved,” Prof. Schubert says. “But the findings of this study suggest that being moved and feeling sadness have overlapping meanings.

“In other words, being moved triggers sadness, and sadness triggers being moved.”

Limitations of the research

Some limitations of the study are associated with allowing the participants to self-select pieces of music.

“It’s always risky to ask a participant to choose music that they both love and makes them feel sad, as it may give them a cue about the aim of the study,” Prof. Schubert says.

“But we did take steps to minimize this in our method, including not mentioning the concerns of the study during recruitment, screening the self-selected pieces and having a control condition.”

Approaches where experimenters select music (which previous studies have mainly been based upon) also have limitations, which future research can address.

“The main limitation of previous studies is that the experimenters select the ‘sad’ music rather than the participants, which means participants might not necessarily ‘love’ the pieces,” Prof. Schubert says.

“Therefore, future research should have more participants to ensure enough happen to love the pieces.”

About this music, emotion, and psychology research news

Author: Ben Knight
Source: University of New South Wales
Contact: Ben Knight – University of New South Wales
Image: The image is credited to Neuroscience News

Original Research: Open access.
Liking music with and without sadness: Testing the direct effect hypothesis of pleasurable negative emotion” by Emery Schubert et al. PLOS ONE


Liking music with and without sadness: Testing the direct effect hypothesis of pleasurable negative emotion

Negative emotion evoked in listeners of music can produce intense pleasure, but we do not fully understand why.

The present study addressed the question by asking participants (n = 50) to self-select a piece of sadness-evoking music that was loved. The key part of the study asked participants to imagine that the felt sadness could be removed.

Overall participants reported performing the task successfully. They also indicated that the removal of the sadness reduced their liking of the music, and 82% of participants reported that the evoked sadness also adds to the enjoyment of the music.

The study provided evidence for a “Direct effect hypothesis”, which draws on the multicomponent model of emotion, where a component of the negative emotion is experienced as positive during music (and other aesthetic) experiences.

Earlier evidence of a mediator, such as ‘being moved’, as the source of enjoyment was reinterpreted in light of the new findings.

Instead, the present study applied a semantic overlap explanation, arguing that sadness primes emotions that share meaning with sadness, such as being-moved. The priming occurs if the overlap in meaning is sufficient. The degree of semantic overlap was defined empirically.

The present study therefore suggests that mediator-based explanations need to be treated with caution both as a finding of the study, and because of analytic limitations in earlier research that are discussed in the paper.

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