Sad Songs Say So Much . . . About the Listener

Our reactions to sad music reveal more about us than our musical aptitude.

Posted Jan 08, 2018

Eugenio Marongiu/Shutterstock
Source: Eugenio Marongiu/Shutterstock

In a YouTube video that went viral last year, a toddler attending his sister’s piano recital is moved to tears when he hears Beethoven’s “Moonlight Sonata.” Among the thousands of comments people have posted about the video, many are from musicians who marvel at the young boy’s sensitivity to music and speculate on his prospects for a musical career (many have even gone so far as to offer to buy him an instrument). Whatever the boy’s poignant reaction to Beethoven’s famously haunting melody may or may not indicate about his musical abilities, a recent study in Finland suggests that it might reveal a great deal about his personality.

Researchers at the University Jyväskylä investigated the types of emotions induced in people by listening to unfamiliar, sad instrumental music, and sought to determine whether these responses were consistently associated with individual personality variables. One hundred and two participants listened to a piece of instrumental music which had been previously determined to induce sadness in listeners, and with which they were unfamiliar (“Discovery of the Camp” from the Band of Brothers movie soundtrack). The unfamiliarity of the piece, as well as the absence of lyrics, was calculated to minimize any personal associations it might evoke.

Prior to listening to the piece, participants rated their current mood by completing the Positive and Negative Affect Schedule (PANAS). They once again rated their mood after listening to the piece, as well as describing the emotions that they perceived and felt while the music was playing (e.g., what the music sounded like to them, and how it made them feel). Indirect measures, including a pictorial facial-expression judgment task, and two psychophysiological indices — heart rate variability and electrodermal activity — complemented the self-reported measures.

Based on the resulting data, the participants’ emotional responses to the music were distinguished in terms of three underlying factors: relaxing sadness, nervous sadness, and moving sadnessRelaxing sadness was characterized by “felt and perceived peacefulness and positive valence.” Nervous sadness involved “felt anxiety, perceived scariness, and negative valence.” The third factor, moving sadness, was the one most closely aligned to the kind of powerful emotional experience that sad music is capable of evoking — the kind of reaction exhibited by the toddler in his first exposure to the “Moonlight Sonata.” When the three factors were examined in terms of self-reported emotion and indirect physiological indices, only moving sadness was characterized by both an intense sympathetic arousal and a positive valence. In other words, moving sadness in response to a piece of sad music is “a complex and intense emotional experience involving both aesthetic, enjoyable emotions (such as liking and being moved) and feelings of sadness.”

Moving sadness became the focal point of the study, as the researchers looked for correlations between emotional responses to the music and individual personality variables. Participants were administered a number of instruments designed to measure personality traits (e.g., the Interpersonal Reactivity Index), and the results were compared with the results of the music-listening experiment to see if any traits predicted individual emotional responses to the sad music excerpt. While relaxing sadness and nervous sadness were not significantly predicted by any of the individual difference variables, the distinctive combination of sadness and enjoyment characteristic of moving sadness was effectively predicted by the trait of empathy and sensitivity to social contagion.

Both empathy and social contagion involve taking on the perspective of other people. The empathy sub-scale most closely associated with moving sadness was fantasy, which suggests that the ability to identify with the perspectives of fictional characters and to “lose oneself” in their stories plays a key role in the ability to be deeply moved by sad music, as does sensitivity to social contagion, or the tendency to “catch” the emotions of other people. While it is perhaps not surprising that these two characteristics predict the tendency to be moved by sad music — to experience the emotions implicitly communicated by a “sad” instrumental composition — the fact that such an experience of sadness can be described as enjoyable calls for a bit more of an explanation. 

One possible such explanation is offered by the fact that, in addition to being predicted by fantasy, moving sadness was also positively correlated with the empathy sub-scale "empathetic concern.” Contrary to the related empathy sub-scale of “personal distress,” which is “an aversive, self-focused response involving feelings of discomfort and anxiety,” empathetic concern “is associated with other-focused, pro-social behavior.” For “sadness enjoyers,” as the researchers labeled participants who experienced the highest levels of moving sadness, the intense feelings of sadness evoked by the music sample were directed outward rather than inward. As a result, their experience of these feelings was aesthetic, and therefore pleasurable, not personally distressing and unpleasant.

The results of this study suggest that the way we respond to an unfamiliar piece of sad music can reveal quite a bit about our personalities. If we’re browsing Spotify and happen upon some melancholy composition we’ve never heard before — such as “Discovery of the Camp” from the Band of Brothers soundtrack — and simply don’t “feel” the music, or we do feel it, but find the feeling unpleasant, it could mean that empathy is not one of our defining traits. If, however, we hear such a piece and find our lips quivering and our eyes filling with tears, but — like the toddler hearing “Moonlight Sonata” for the first time — remain fixated on the music until the final haunting note, our reaction may indicate our capacity for reaching outside of ourselves and viewing the world from the perspective of other people, both real and fictional. Whichever way we respond to a sad song we’ve never heard before — with stony indifference or with a flood of unexpected tears — it likely says a great deal more about us than whether or not we have an “ear” for music. 


Eerola, T., Vuoskoski, J. K., & Kautiainen, H. (2016). "Being Moved by Unfamiliar Sad Music Is Associated with High Empathy." Frontiers in Psychology, 7, 1176