Why Does Melancholic Music Elicit Happiness?

It has been a question that has frequently left psychologists and philosophers bewildered. So why do people take pleasure in songs with melancholic topics? And paradoxically, why are some upsetting songs set to upbeat tunes? For example “Hello Goodbye” by The Beatles. Generally melancholic music is thought to cause us to experience sadness, and by most people, that is considered to be an unpleasant emotion. One possible answer that has been hypothesized is that we may actually feel positive emotions when we listen to sad music.

The Beatles – “Hello Goodbye”

In a recent ‘Sad music induces pleasant emotion’ study, emotions were divided up into felt emotions ‘how did you feel’ and perceived emotions ‘imagine how other people would feel’, with the study finding that felt and perceived emotions did not always match. Generally the listeners felt less emotion than they perceived, they also experienced not only sadness but an increased feeling of romance. Often listening to sad music can induce sadness in those listening, but it has been said that people ‘lose themselves’ in the sound of melancholic music and enjoy listening to it. In fact some of the most intense listening experiences can be linked to sad music. How can this contradiction be resolved?

In spite of the fact that sadness can often be regarded as a negative and distressing emotion, if one indulges in this emotion in the context of an artistic appreciation, it is likely that this emotion can be perceived differently. For example, comedy and tragedy have been at the forefront of chosen topics in the field of drama, with emotions such as sorrow frequently being an essential component and aesthetic experience within the field. Music has responded in a similar manner.

Sinead O’Connor – “Nothing Compares 2U”

Art and music enables a person to experience emotions without fearing any serious future implications, allowing us to wallow in an abundance of emotions that may or may not be familiar to the listener. There is the experience of emotion without it affecting reality, experience in a setting of emotional safety. We can enjoy the retreat and rest offered by sadness, it provides us with an opportunity to reflect and ponder. From this evidence, it would be unwise to suggest that sadness has had a negative impact on the human experience especially when we associate it with art.

Leonard Meyer had a slightly more objective view on the subject, he called it ‘Musical Expectancy Theory’ – this means that when we listen to music, we tend to anticipate what is coming next and because we are rewarded by being right, this creates a positive emotion even if we are listening to something sad. He believed that this would affect the emotions being felt by the process of ‘sweet anticipation’. So even if the listener experiences negative emotions when listening to the music, the effect of ‘sweet anticipation’ will counteract it. Stefan Koelsh added into the mix the thought that because there is a rewarding effect of enjoying art, then the experience of listening to sad music may in the end create positive emotion.

Bob Dylan – “Knockin’ On Heaven’s Door”

Following on from this hypothesis, psychologists Kazuma Mori and Makota Iwanaga have recently published a paper which describes their findings regarding the topic. The pair conducted an experiment with fifty one university students subjecting them to listen to numerous songs in various languages in order to analyse results; their aim – to see if listening to melancholic music can evoke enjoyable feelings in the listener. Mori and Iwanaga concluded, “although the happy sounding foreign songs with translated sad lyrics were rated as expressing the same intensity of happiness and sadness, they induced pleasant feelings in participants in the same way as happy foreign songs did”.

Furthermore, the psychologists also stated that the reason why we do not find listening to morose topics painful is due to the fact we, as the listener, look to experience and relate to the emotions through music rather than focus on the lyrical content, this connection with the music is far more potent than the sorrow it describes, ultimately causing the listener to have positive affirmations or ambivalent emotions in response when we feel it through art. “People listen to music largely as a result of the desire to experience the emotions induced by listening to it”.

Leona Lewis – “Bleeding Love”

In summary, listening to melancholic music induces people to feel emotions fervently; typically music intensifies emotions in a romantic context or to make the listener feel less tragic. “Participants seemed to experience ambivalent emotions when listening to sad music. This is possibly because the emotion induced by music is indirect, that is, not induced by personal events, which somehow induces participants to feel pleasure as well”, the study concludes. To read the paper in full click here. Find our selection of tearjerkers above for you to try out – Enjoy?

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