KPG Payless2/Shutterstock
Source: KPG Payless2/Shutterstock

Ever find yourself moved to tears by music? Eva Cassidy’s "Somewhere over the Rainbow" does it for me. How about you? Many types of music can move people to tears—blubbering in the balcony is iconic in opera. The phenomenon of crying sparked by music is an interesting but little-studied behavior. According to a new study, whether music does or does not make you feel like crying reveals something about your fundamental personality, and the particular shade of emotion gripping you as you feel choked up is different for different personality types. 

Researchers Katherine Cotter and Paul Silvia at the University of North Carolina and Kirill Fayn at the University of Sydney collaborated on research to investigate the emotions that people feel when music makes them feel like crying. Evoking emotion is the main point of music, after all, so perhaps we shouldn’t be too surprised that songs can put a lump in your throat. Music can calm or excite; it can motivate, uniting worshipers in peace and devotion, or driving people, to the sound of drum and bugle, into battle. Likewise, crying is a complex human behavior that can accompany a variety of intense experiences. Crying can be provoked by grief, as at a funeral, but also by the opposite: extreme happiness, as at a wedding. But helplessness and gratitude and other subtle emotions can also provoke tears. What emotion do most people feel when they are moved to tears by music?

The researchers surveyed 892 adults to determine how many had experienced feeling like crying while hearing music, and what emotion they were feeling at that moment. The first finding is that being moved to tears by music is not unusual. 89.8 percent of the people in the study reported that they had experienced feeling like crying by hearing the music. The participants were asked to rank their emotional feelings accompanying that response, across a spectrum of 16 emotions, including euphoria, happiness, awe, anxiousness, sadness, depression, etc. The researchers found that people who had been moved to tears by music could be clearly separated into two groups: those who felt sadness and those who felt awe. The majority (63 percent) reported feeling sad when music made them cry, and 36.7 percent reported feeling awe. Is there something about the personalities of people in these two different groups that could explain why these two very different emotional reactions—sadness and awe—provoked tears while listening to music? 

The participants in the study had been given a psychological test to classify them according to five personality attributes: neuroticism, extraversion, openness to experience, agreeableness, and conscientiousness. When the researchers sorted the data, they found that people who ranked high on the neuroticism scale experienced sadness when they had been moved to tears by music, and people who scored high in the openness to experience scale felt like crying because the music provoked a profound sense of awe. 

In Eva Cassidy’s performance, the emotion evoked is definitely awe. I feel awed by experiencing the extraordinary talent of one person to deliver such a perfect and moving performance—built from nothing other than her beautiful voice and skillful self-accompaniment with resonant jazz chords and intricate broken arpeggio riffs. It is a live performance, and the tension of sustaining perfection alone in the spotlight magnifies the stakes. The song has become a thread-worn children’s jingle from a lifetime of overuse, but here it is transformed and soaring. So I guess my reaction puts me among the minority, who cry at music because it invokes awe, compared to the two-thirds of people who cry because a song is sad. If the correlation with personality traits is correct, I should not rank particularly high on the neuroticism scale (thankfully). But I’m not so sure. 

This thought-provoking study is a good start, but it has some limitations. The experimental group was comprised of college students, which may not adequately reflect the population as a whole. Also, 69.6 percent of the participants were female, and the possible effect of gender was not analyzed. Another consideration is that in relying upon each person’s recollection of a time in the past when they had felt like crying while listening to music, the study depends on self-reporting to be accurate. 

But in my opinion there is another complication at work. Human emotions are complex. They don’t always fit like pegs into the slots researchers provide in their experimental designs. I remember being moved to tears while hearing Pete Seeger sing "We Shall Overcome," inspiring everyone in the crowd to join in a united chorus of solidarity and determination. The predominant feeling I had at the time was sadness. I was thinking of all the people who had sung that song in the streets of this country over the years in peaceful struggles to overcome racial and social injustice; black-and-white images of the Governor of Alabama blocking the doorway of the university, police dogs, fire hoses blasting protesters off their feet, neighborhoods burning in summer riots, the horrors of a war in Southeast Asia that ripped our country apart and challenged every young man of draft age to confront their own morality and mortality, to distinguish duty from deceit and decide, betting their life, about a war that was taking the lives of thousands and maiming thousands more—and what for? 

But it was not only sadness that I felt as I listened to Seeger sing. It is possible to experience both sadness and awe simultaneously. It is natural to feel powerless and overwhelmed by forces of national and international power. What can one person possibly do? All that Seeger had was a banjo. I felt a bittersweet mix of sadness and awe in seeing one man with the courage to stand up against injustice. Motivated to try to make the world a better, more peaceful place, to inspire us to be better human beings, and do it with the only thing he had—songs. 

Music is powerful stuff. As a biologist I see tooth and nail everywhere in nature, because unfortunately violence is sometimes necessary for survival. But amidst current events—such as the hurling of brutal threats to obliterate millions of people with thermonuclear weapons—perhaps what the world needs now is a few less bombs and a few more banjos.

References

Cotter, K.N. Silvia, P.J. Fayn, P.J. (2017 in press) What does feeling like crying when listening to music feel like? Psychology of Aesthetics, Creativity, and the Arts. On line in advance of print: http://psycnet.apa.org/doiLanding?doi=10.1037%2Faca0000108

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