I was surprised that my favorite music streaming service has a playlist called Sad Songs. I wondered: Why would anyone want to listen to a bunch of sad songs? I assumed that sad songs make you sad, and everyone would rather be happy than sad. So it made no sense that anyone would want to listen to a sad song playlist. But when I listened to the playlist, I discovered that it includes many of my favorite songs, and I really enjoyed listening to it. So what is it that makes sad songs so appealing?
On reflection, I realized that the emotional impact of music does not come from imparting particular emotions, but rather from being emotionally engaging in general. Sometimes sad songs do you make you feel bad if they revive memories of your own tragic times, but more often they engage your interest because they describe or convey important events in the lives of others. Such emotional engagement is also important in other forms of art, including tragic drama such as Shakespeare’s Hamlet, stirring paintings such as Picasso’s Guernica, and thrilling movies.
The pleasure of engagement with intense negative emotions can be explained using the semantic pointer theory of emotion that Tobias Schröder and I have developed. On this account, emotions require neural processes that bind together representation of the situation, perceptions of physiological changes that take place in response to that situation, and cognitive appraisals of the relevance of the situations to your goals. When you experience sad songs or tragic fiction, you may experience some of the same physiological reaction that occurs when you yourself are in bad situation, but the cognitive appraisal is very different. After all, the sad song, tragic drama, or horror movie is not about you, and therefore is not a threat to your own goals. In fact, the realization that the current state of your life is not sad, tragic or horrific can give you a feeling of relief and perhaps even happiness that you are not suffering in the same way that the singer or actor is. So the emotional engagement that the sad song provides usually comes without personal threat.
Thinking about sad songs got me wondering about the emotional content of songs in general, so I started going through the Rolling Stone Magazine list of 500 best songs of all time. Even the top 10 display an amazing array of emotions, much more diverse than just happy and sad. Many songs often exhibit multiple emotions, and two of the 10 seem to combine positive and negative. Aretha Franklin’s magnificent Respect is positive in expressing pride and confidence in demanding respect for herself, and also negative in indicating resentment that she has not always been treated that way. Hey Jude by the Beatles is sad in recognizing that the person to whom it is addressed (reportedly John Lennon’s son who was upset about his parents divorce) is suffering. But it also hopeful and positive in providing the message that you can take a sad song and make it better.
Other songs on the list are more resoundingly negative. Number one on the list is my own personal favorite, Bob Dylan’s Like a Rolling Stone, which intensely displays resentment, anger, and gloating at the misfortune of the person addressed. The song Satisfaction by the group The Rolling Stones portrays frustrated lust and social resentment. Marvin Gaye’s What’s Going On indicates sadness and distress about political and environmental degradation. Nirana’s Smells Like Teen Spirit conveys angst and disillusionment.
On the positive side, John Lennon’s Imagine inspires hope for a better world, and the Beach Boys Good Vibrations evokes happiness in a good relationship. Chuck Berry’s Johnny B Goode and Ray Charles’s What’d I Say portray happiness about good music and romance, respectively.
All of these songs combine original music, appropriate lyrics, and superb performances to evoke intense emotions. So it does not matter whether a song is happy or sad, only whether it has an emotional impact on the listeners. People are happy to like sad songs, just not boring ones.