Ideas

Ideas | Kelly Kasulis

Why sad songs say so much

Portrait of a funny displeased girl teenager with headphones over pink background. Studio shot. Teen's fashion.
Andrey Kiselev/stock.adobe.com

Music is an essential part of the human experience. War ballads, breakup songs and other lamenting lyrics have defined world cultures for hundreds — if not thousands — of years. But most academics still don’t understand why we find solace in listening to sad songs. Now, a recent study tries to answer that question.

Scientists at the University of Osaka asked study participants to listen to their own shortlist of tear-jerkers, then monitored what happened to their bodies as they listened. They found two conflicting, somewhat paradoxical psychosocial markers in those who reported tears or a lump in their throat — slowed breathing coupled with a faster heartbeat.

“It [shows] a sign of some arousal and some calming, which seems a bit contradictory,” said Robert Zatorre, a professor of neuroscience at McGill University’s Montreal Neurological Institute and Hospital. Normally, “if you’re very excited by anything, whether it’s pleasant music or watching a horror movie. . . your heart rate and respiration would increase.”

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In the experiment, sad songs induced a strange mix of excitement and calmness. It may mean that we’re not just indulging our miseries when we binge on an entire Adele album — instead, we could be feeling complex “nuances of pleasure” unique to music, Zatorre said.

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“This [study] points to the complexity of music. [It’s] unlike other types of stimuli, which are more straightforward,” he said. “No one attends a funeral because they find it so pleasurable. And yet, with music, people love to listen to sad songs.”

Researchers behind the study speculate that their results could imply a “cathartic effect,” but the idea that crying makes us feel better has been challenged in recent years (other research argues that crying actually makes us feel worse). David Huron, a professor at Ohio State University’s School of Music who studies how the brain reacts to music, argues that there are possibly other mechanisms at play.

The brain’s neocortex, for example, might stop us from succumbing to a true state of emotional pain when listening to music. “When [a friend’s] pet dog dies or they break up with someone, we can see the depth of their emotion and see that it’s unpleasant. We don’t feel particularly good about it ourselves,” Huron said. “But what makes music different is that, on the other hand, the neocortex is going to say, ‘Who are you kidding? This is just music. Nobody died. It’s a fictional form.’ ”

He argues that pleasure from emotive music could be like riding a roller coaster: The brain’s amygdala signals fear that riding downhill on a track at 70 miles per hour will get us killed, while the neocortex reasons that we are safe.

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“That conflict creates pleasure,” Huron said. “In the case of music, we’re not privy to this stuff. We’re not aware that the electric guitar [sounds the] same as screaming — that the amygdala is being activated.”

Of course, that’s just one theory.

“We’re still not close to understanding the reasoning behind all this,” Zatorre said.

Kelly Kasulis is a freelance journalist. Follow her on Twitter: @KasulisK.