Sir Elton John once sang that “Sad songs say so much.” But do they make us sad?

Researchers at Tokyo University of the Arts and the RIKEN Brain Science Institute in Japan set out to answer this question in a recent study published online. They posed the question, “why do we listen to sad music if it evokes sadness?”

The results show that, contrary to popular belief, listening to sad music actually makes us “feel more romantic, more blithe, and less tragic emotions.”

In the study, researchers divided emotions relating to music into two categories: perceived emotion and felt emotion for 44 participants, who listened to two sad songs and one happy song. The participants then rated their emotions against 62 words or phrases, saying how much they identified with each on a scale ranging from 0 (not at all) to 4 (very much).

Though the participants perceived that the sad music was “tragic,” their actual experience of listening to the music was rated much more cheerfully.

The researchers write:

“The 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 sad songs that participants listened to were Nocturne in F minor “La Separation” by Glinka and Etude G minor “Sur Mer” by Blumenfeld. Researchers also played these songs in a major key in order to control for the “happy effect.”

They noted that emotions stirred up by music do not pose a direct threat to listeners, unlike emotions we feel on a daily basis. “Therefore,” they say, “we can even enjoy unpleasant emotion such as sadness. If we suffer from unpleasant emotion evoked through daily life, sad music might be helpful to alleviate negative emotion.”

Several studies have been conducted recently about the benefits of listening to music, most notably one about the benefits of music for both mental and physical health.

Even Sir Elton knows the benefits of identifying with sad songs:

If someone else is suffering enough to write it down

When every single word makes sense

Then it’s easier to have those songs around

The kick inside is in the line that finally gets to you

and it feels so good to hurt so bad

And suffer just enough to sing the blues.”

Sad Songs (Say So Much), Elton John and Bernie Taupin

The researchers conclude that a new model needs to be created for examining musically induced emotions: “This new model must entertain the possibility that what we experience when listening to music is vicarious emotion.”

Perhaps Sir Elton can help the researchers with their aims.