Even though pop music has allegedly become more upbeat during the pandemic, there’s something satisfying about queuing up a sad song and letting the melancholy feelings wash over you. This commonplace experience actually raises “one of the most intriguing questions in the history of music scholarship,” according to psychologists Jonna Vuoskoski, William Thompson, Doris McIlwain, and Tuomas Eerola: Why do people enjoy listening to sad music?
Scholars have long observed that music has a powerful effect on the body and the brain, dating all the way back to the ancient Greeks, who used music to treat disease and influence the temperament. In 1958, medical doctor Agnes Savill warned that “Music which produces moods of depression, bewilderment, even fear, can be safely studied by musicians and critics who approach it from an intellectual standpoint, but should be avoided by tense and anxious listeners.” It seems intuitive that sad music would make listeners feel worse—and yet many can’t help but listen.
“Although people generally avoid negative emotional experiences…they often enjoy sadness portrayed in music and other arts,” write Vuoskoski et al. This is the “paradox of ‘pleasurable sadness,’” they write, and it has “puzzled music scholars for decades.”
To investigate this paradox, scholars have taken many different approaches. One method is simple: by asking people how different music makes them feel. In their 2012 study, Vuoskoski and colleagues asked participants to rate their emotional responses to sixteen pieces of music. The team discovered that sad music didn’t evoke only negative emotions. In addition to sadness, such music also produced “a range of more positive, aesthetic emotions,” like nostalgia, peacefulness, and wonder.
Emotions aren’t just psychological; scientists can also measure physiological reactions to music. In 2015, psychologists Patrick N. Juslin, Gonçalo Barradas, and Tuomas Eerola measured “skin conductance levels and facial expressions” as participants listened to a selection of tunes. The team proposed an evolutionary reason behind our strong physical reaction to somber music: The voicelike emotional expression of the music activates an empathetic response called “the contagion mechanism.” That’s why violins and cellos sound especially sad: They resemble human voices.
Of course, music and emotion are both incredibly subjective experiences. “This paradox is a complex one that appears to have no single answer,” write psychologists Sandra Garrido and Emery Schubert. Garrido and Schubert argue that enjoyment of sad music is likely based on individual differences in a combination of emotional and evolved traits like “dissociation, absorption, fantasy proneness, empathy, and rumination.”
For example: Schubert theorizes that in some individuals, negative emotions in the context of an “aesthetic” experience (like music) trigger a dissociative response that “inhibits the displeasure circuits of the brain.” Therefore, “those with strong tendencies to non-pathologically dissociate [can experience sad music] without activating displeasure.”
So the next time you feel the urge to listen to Sufjan Stevens or Fiona Apple or one of Chopin’s nocturnes, don’t fight it. A little sadness might just bring enormous enjoyment.