Don't be Sad; Two out of Three Ain't Bad
October 20, 2013 5:46 PM   Subscribe

Why do we feel happy when we listen to sad music? A study from the Tokyo University of the Arts and RIKEN says that while we expect sad feelings to result from sad music, often the emotions are more neutral or even positive.

It goes on to discuss some reasons this may be true such as the vicarious nature of the emotions or that we know the song will be sad and "listeners experience positive feelings when a future event is successfully predicted."

The Exploratorium provides some examples of songs in both major and minor key to help illustrate the difference between happy and sad sounding music.
posted by soelo (14 comments total) 11 users marked this as a favorite
Ah Two Out Of Three Aint Bad, probably the best song ever about steadfastly refusing to engage emotionally with your sexual partner..
posted by mediocre at 5:57 PM on October 20, 2013

i often asked my piano teacher for more pieces to learn in minor keys and i gravitate to listening to songs in them, but i didn't really understand why. there isn't anything wrong with it though, it's not reveling in depression. the best explanation i've heard was that from playing and listening to minor keys is not feeling pleasure from sadness, per say, so much as a type of catharsis.
posted by cristinacristinacristina at 6:27 PM on October 20, 2013

It seems to me that I feel happy listening to sad music because sad music makes me feel like part of something larger than myself. (Also, speaking of felt emotion, that article hurt my head.)
posted by leopard at 6:28 PM on October 20, 2013 [1 favorite]

A couple of lists of classic sad songs at AskMe.
posted by LobsterMitten at 6:55 PM on October 20, 2013

A love of melancholy music has sustained me through the bluest blues, the fallow flatnesses, and the soaring daylight, and it's not that it cheers me up, or gives me comfort, really—there's just a familiar thereness to it that is just the way life is.

The best best friend I've ever had was killed earlier this year, and as I set to the task of preparing the playlists that would carry me through a grieving stretch that ended up being far longer and deeper than I could have possibly expected, I included a lot of the music from our best times together in a mix with the music that just speaks to the blue hole, too.

The Pointer Sisters singing "Automatic" gutted me, every damn time it rolled around in the random play, but the melancholy songs on the list, like "Worry About You" and "Feel It All Around" and "Free Will and Testament" and "Invisible," all produced a state of glorious suspension in the space that surrounds us, full of terrible beauty and wretched joys and pleasant injustices and accidental wonders. We fall screaming into life and are all destined to die too soon, and in between, we fight and cry and love and hurt and it's all too much and yet here were are.

"Everybody dies, frustrated and sad, and that is beautiful," the song says, and here we are.

Trying to explain my fanatical love of The High Llamas to people more inclined towards cheerier, lighter, and more energetic fare presents a problem when I'm doubly pressed to justify that I am myself a cheery, light, and energetic person who happens to find air and life in chords on the bluer regions of the scale. We're all familiar with the pleasures of the easier harmonies, and they are wonderful on their own merits, but when there is no dark with the light, art becomes a swirl of meringue and sugar, all form without resistance or texture.

Regarding new age music, Eno opined that the problem is that there's no evil in it.

When we sing along to all of it, all rough and dark, all sweet and brilliant, all sour and bitter, we're immersed in the sonic simulacrum of the fullest life, and here we are.

Sometimes, life hurts. Sometimes, we're lost. Sometimes, things will get worse.

I still dream of Orgonon.
I wake up crying.
You're making rain,
And you're just in reach,
When you and sleep escape me.

You're like my yo-yo
That glowed in the dark.
What made it special
Made it dangerous,
So I bury it
And forget.

And here we are.
posted by sonascope at 7:08 PM on October 20, 2013 [4 favorites]

There's sad, and then there's Townes Van Zandt.

My wife doesn't understand my love of sad music. Consequently I've had to temper my listening to it, and I've found I have more trouble emotionally - clipping the highs and recovering from the lows - because of that lack. I once heard Richard Buckner described as, "If vegemite and haggis were people, they'd still consider Buckner an acquired taste," but man, it grounds me.
posted by notsnot at 7:54 PM on October 20, 2013 [3 favorites]

Yeah, Townes Van Zandt's "Live at the Old Quarter" almost single-handedly got me through the car wreck that killed three friends. I'm sure Red House Painters helped.
posted by whatgorilla at 9:05 PM on October 20, 2013

We avoided selecting well-known musical pieces for use in our experiment. If well-known music had been used for the experiment, then certain participants might have had personal memories connected with this music, and the emotion evoked would thus have been influenced by those memories.

Seems to me they're throwing out at least a third of what music is about. Later they do acknowledge that memory plays an important part but consider that to be outside music somehow.

The experiment was conducted with each individual participant in a sound-insulated room. Each participant entered the room and sat across from a computer monitor

They discuss context a little bit later but seem blind to its full impact. A college student listening with loudspeakers in a lab clicking on words on a screen is not the same as a war widow sitting in a cathedral listening to the Fauré Requiem.

music is assumed to have no real implications for an individual's well-being

Perhaps the authors should go work in STEM instead.
posted by yoHighness at 2:37 AM on October 21, 2013

As an example one can learn interesting things when one puts headphones on people who then get squeezed into a huge, intimidating, noisy as hell medical MRT brain scanning machine, to study their responses. You get some part of a picture but at the same time you dissected something with a scalpel and you're measuring responses to parts of a now dead thing.
posted by yoHighness at 2:45 AM on October 21, 2013

For what it's worth as a counterpoint, I no longer allow myself to listen to sad music. Maybe it's a history of depression, but it just makes me miserable. If I ever feel the need to cry, sure, but it's not good for me. I find music makes my lows lower and my highs higher. I recognise I may be an outlier in that respect.
(I also no longer watch sad films or horribly bleak tv series. My life's been much better for it)
posted by stillnocturnal at 4:35 AM on October 21, 2013

Here's a study that further reinforces this theory from Louis CK University.
posted by any major dude at 6:34 AM on October 21, 2013

Hmm, the spotify playlist on that last link opens with Barber's Adagio for Strings. I attended a talk at Stanford once which mentioned a study which identified the feeling of 'chills' when listening to Music as being correlated with a dopamine release. In the study the participants were put in an fMRI machine while listening to music that gave them chills, which they selected themselves. Adagio featured very heavily in the list of pieces selected - either the original piece or more commonly a club remix.
posted by TwoWordReview at 6:50 PM on October 21, 2013

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