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Scientist Tries to Decode Why People Listen to Sad Songs. What She Found was Surprising

Sad songs might still some unpleasant emotions rooted deep within us but scientists say, people still seek pleasure within sadness.
PUBLISHED MAY 30, 2024
Representative Cover Image Source: Pexels | Darina Belonogova
Representative Cover Image Source: Pexels | Darina Belonogova

Music is known for having a powerful effect on our emotions by stimulating various parts of the brain responsible for processing emotions such as happiness, sadness, anger, and fear. It's only natural that listening to sad songs evokes emotions through lyrics and tunes that resonate with unpleasant memories. Many people find solace in listening to sad music but have you ever wondered why we truly prefer listening to them?

Representative Image Source: Pexels | Marlene Leppänen
Representative Image Source: Pexels | Marlene Leppänen

According to scientists from the University of New South Wales, we listen to sad music simply because we find pleasure in feeling sad. As shocking as that might sound initially, the experts at the university have carried out a study to determine the psychological effects of listening to sad music. “I guess part of being human is that we just can’t cope with the idea that there’s something strangely pleasurable about negative emotion,” Professor Emery Schubert from the University of New South Wales said.

“But what about people who actually just say, ‘Well, the reason I love this piece of music is because it makes me sad?' Who’s to say that they’re wrong?” she explained. Schubert asked 50 people to think about a sad song that they love, as part of a study. The participants came up with a range of different answers and listed tracks from Beethoven to Taylor Swift. The participants also filled out an online questionnaire that required them to reveal the emotions they felt while listening to their chosen song.

Representative Image Source: Pexels | Marlene Leppänen
Representative Image Source: Pexels | Marlene Leppänen

When the people were asked to reimagine the same song without the sadness, they revealed that it made them appreciate the music less by 82%. Schubert also asked another 53 volunteers to "identify a tune they love and would consider moving." These people reported that they felt sad while listening to the song they chose but they still enjoyed it.

“It’s always risky to ask a participant to choose music that they both love and makes them feel sad, as it may give them a cue about the aim of the study,” Schubert added. “But we did take steps to minimize this in our method, including not mentioning the concerns of the study during recruitment, screening the self-selected pieces and having a control condition. The main limitation of previous studies is that the experimenters select the ‘sad’ music rather than the participants, which means participants might not necessarily ‘love’ the pieces.' Therefore, future research should have more participants to ensure enough happen to love the pieces.”

Representative Image Source: Pexels | Karolina Grabowska
Representative Image Source: Pexels | Karolina Grabowska

Schubert determined from this study that people often "conflate the feeling of being sad and moved and as a result, experience a direct link between sadness and overall pleasure." But Tuomas Eerola at the Durham University has raised questions about the accuracy of the study. He wonders if we can truly remove the element of sadness from a song that is considered sad by the listeners in general. "The whole study rests on an assumption that listeners are capable of perfect dissection of their emotional causes from each other concerning their loved music,” he said, per New Scientist.

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