A unique study by Finnish researchers published in the January issue of Psychology of Aesthetics, Creativity, and the Arts shows that listening to sad music can cause genuine sadness in listeners, and that people’s personalities have an important effect on the emotional responses to sad music. Scientists have debated the issue for decades but were unable to provide reliable proof.

The study participants listened either to sad music they chose themselves or to instrumental, sad music they had not heard before. The researchers measured participants’ emotions when they listening to sad music in the most possible objective way by using indirect measures of memory and judgment, and discovered that whilst all participants felt sad when listening to self-selected, familiar sad music, only those participants who were empathic also felt sad when listening to the unfamiliar, instrumental sad music.

Jonna Vuoskoski from the Finnish Centre of Excellence in Interdisciplinary Music Research at the University of Jyväskylä, Finland, explains that familiar sad music often raises sad memories, which could explain in part as to why familiar music caused all participants to feel sad, whereas the fact that only those who were empathic experienced sad emotions when listening to unfamiliar sad music indicates that empathic people could be in general more sensitive to emotions brought on by music.

Vuoskoski comments that these findings may provide an explanation as to why some people are more strongly affected by music in comparison to others.

Even though many participants felt genuine sadness when listening to sad music, they still reported the experience to be enjoyable.

Whilst sadness is generally associated with negative emotions in day-to-day life, experiencing sadness when listening to music is not, says Vuoskoski. She concludes saying that this raises an interesting question to be investigated in further research as to why so many people experience joy when listening to sad music and even enjoy sadness brought on by sad music.

Written by Petra Rattue