woman listening to music

Why Do Sad Songs Mean So Much to Some of Us?

Some of us like sad songs more than others, and that has a lot to do with empathy, according to British researchers.

The study, by Professor Tuomas Eerola from the University of Durham’s Department of Music, was published in Frontiers in Psychology.

Tear-jerkers such as Adele’s Someone Like You frequently top the charts these days, while gloomy classical compositions like Mozart’s Requiem have moved people for centuries. Both portray and bring about a strong sense of loss and sadness. But our enjoyment of sad music is paradoxical – we go out of our way to avoid sadness in our daily lives. So why is it that, in the arts, themes such as loss can be safely experienced, profoundly enjoyed and even celebrated?

Surely nobody would like it unless the emotion experienced is not actual sadness but some kind of transformed version of it? Based on large surveys of what people experience while listening to sad music, we know that these experiences typically fall into different categories.

For some, sad music actually deepens and amplifies the feelings of sorrow and loss – emotions that are connected to personal events and memories. These experiences are far from pleasurable and therefore do not offer an explanation for the paradox. For others, sad music brings about feelings of melancholia.

The most curious type of experience, however, is the feeling of being moved, which is likely the basis of our fascination with sad music. This experience can be difficult to describe verbally, but it is often intense and pleasurable. However, not everyone seems to be able to experience it. So who would? Intuitively, it would make sense that those who easily feel empathy are also easily moved.

To test this hypothesis, researchers recruited a nationally representative sample of 102 participants to a listening experiment. The investigators played them a piece of instrumental sad music, Discovery of the Camp by Michael Kamen, which was briefly played in the drama miniseries Band of Brothers. In an initial pilot study, the vast majority of people couldn’t recognize it.

The listeners were also asked to reveal a wide range of background measures including how prone they were to dwell in nostalgia and what their current mood, health, and quality of life was. Researchers also profiled their music preferences and used standard trait empathy measure, “the interpersonal reactivity index”, to evaluate how much empathy they had.

Eerola says, “The experiences generated by this particular music ranged from feeling relaxed or moved to sometimes being anxious or nervous. Participants who experienced being moved reported intense, pleasurable, and yet sad emotions at the same time. Crucially, we found that the people who were moved by the piece also scored highly on empathy. Conversely, those with a tendency of being low on empathy hardly ever reported being moved by this music. “


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