Understanding basic emotions in music is very quick and does not require musical training. For instance, hearing a sad cello performance may induce a genuine state of sadness in a listener.
The most important musical cues for the expression of sadness in Western music include lower overall pitch, slower tempo, use of the minor mode, dull and dark timbres, and less energetic execution (Juslin, 2013).
Sadness is generally seen as a negative emotion. But we tend to find it pleasurable in an aesthetic context, which is known as the paradox of enjoying sad music. What is the nature of the pleasure that people experience from listening to sad music?
Accumulated evidence suggests that pleasure in response to sad music is related to a combination of the following factors (Eerola, et al., 2018; Sachs et al 2015).
1. Nostalgia. Sad music is a powerful trigger for nostalgic memories of foregone times. Such reflective revisiting of nostalgic memories may enhance mood, especially if the memories are related to pivotal and meaningful moments in life (i.e., high school, college). We enjoy the sweetness of these memories through vivid imaginations. There is some felt in recollecting the good times, as well as sadness from missing them.
2. Vicarious emotion. Music generates vicarious emotions in listeners without real-life implications. Music helps to channel one’s frustration or purge negative emotions like anger and sadness. It's cathartic. When we listen to sad music (or watch a sad film), we are disconnected from any real threat or danger that the music (or movie) represents. When we cry at the beauty of sad music, we experience a profound aspect of our emotional selves (Kawakami, et al., 2013).
3. Prolactin. At the biological level, sad music is linked to the hormone prolactin. which is associated with crying and helps to curb grief (Huron, 2011). Sad music tricks the brain into engaging a normal, compensatory response by releasing prolactin. In the absence of a traumatic event, the body is left with a pleasurable mix of opiates with nowhere else to go. Prolactin produces feelings of calmness to counteract mental pain.
4. Empathy. Empathy plays a significant role in the enjoyment of sad music. Empathy can be broadly defined as a process by which we can come to understand and feel what another person is experiencing. Expressions of sadness and grief are likely to rouse support and help in others. Similarly, listening to sad music may evoke an empathic concern in those with a strong disposition to empathy.
5. Mood regulation. Sad music produces psychological benefits via mood regulation. Sad music enables the listener to disengage from distressing situations (breakup, death, etc.) and focus instead on the beauty of the music. Further, lyrics that resonate with the listener’s personal experience can give voice to feelings or experiences that one might not be able to express oneself.
6. An imaginary friend. Music has the ability to provide company and comfort. People tend to listen to sad music more often when they are in emotional distress or feeling lonely, or when they are in introspective moods. Sad music can be experienced as an imaginary friend who provides support and empathy after the experience of a social loss. The listener enjoys the mere presence of a virtual person, represented by the music, who is in the same mood and can help cope with sad feelings.
In short, music has the proven ability to affect emotions, mood, memory, and attention. The emotional power of music is one of the main motivations of people who devote so much time, energy and money to it (Juslin, 2013).
The ability of music to express emotions is also the reason for its application in music therapy. The knowledge about ways in which sad music becomes enjoyable can inform existing music therapy practices for mood disorders.
The primary way that listening to music affects us is by changing our stress response. For example, in one study, participants were randomly assigned to either listen to music or take anti-anxiety drugs. The patients who listened to music had less anxiety and lower cortisol than people who took drugs. Music is arguably less expensive than drugs, is easier on the body, and doesn't have side effects (Finn & Fancourt, 2018).
Eerola T, Vuoskoski JK, Peltola HR, Putkinen V, Schäfer K. (2018), An integrative review of the enjoyment of sadness associated with music. Phys Life Rev.25:100-121.
Finn S, Fancourt D. (2018) The biological impact of listening to music in clinical and nonclinical settings: A systematic review. Prog Brain Res;237:173-200.
Huron D., Margulis E. H. (2011). “Music expectancy and thrills,” in, Handbook of Music and Emotion: Theory, Research, Applications, eds Juslin P. N., Sloboda J. A., editors. (New York: Oxford University Press; ), 575–604
Juslin PN. (2013), What does music express? Basic emotions and beyond Front Psychol. 6;4:596.
Kawakami, A., Furukawa, K., Katahira, K., and Okanoya, K. (2013). Sad music induces pleasant emotion. Front. Psychol. 4:311.
Sachs ME, Damasio A, Habibi A. (2015), The pleasures of sad music: a systematic review. Front Hum Neurosci. 24;9:404.