During sad or debilitating moments in life, many people turn to melancholy music to drown their sorrows and make themselves feel better. Researchers from the University of Durham in the United Kingdom, and the University of Jyväskylä in Finland, have pinpointed three underlying factors that characterize the strong emotional responses that highly empathic people feel from music including “relaxing sadness,” “moving sadness,” and “nervous sadness.”
It is not only common for listeners of sad music to report feelings of sadness, but also to describe the experience of listening to sad music as highly enjoyable. In previous studies that have explored this paradox, potential explanations have related to lyrics, memories, and mood regulation.
Most studies have focused on music that is familiar to listeners, which researchers say could be a way to reminisce, to reflect on ideas conveyed by the lyrics, or to gain comfort from the music.
However, descriptions of strong experiences with music have indicated that unfamiliar instrumental music may also lead to tears and strong, positive emotions without reference to memories or influence from the lyrics.
The new study, published in Frontiers in Psychology, investigates the types of emotions that are induced by unfamiliar, instrumental, sad music – and how people can be moved by music that is not associated with any familiar memories, lyrics, and contextual associations.
Paradoxical enjoyment of music-induced sadness has been suggested to have nothing to do with sadness but rather mediated by feelings of being moved. The level of enjoyment and intensity of emotional responses from sad music are associated with personal traits such as high empathy.
Empathic responsiveness and enjoyment of sad music indicates that there is something about the emotional qualities of sad music that appeals to listeners and engages them.
Tuomas Eerola, Ph.D., professor of Music at Durham University, and colleagues used a representative sample of people living in Finland through data from Statistics Finland. A total of 102 participants between 20-67 years of age were included in the study, 65 of whom were women.
All participants had physiological sensors attached throughout the test to record experienced emotion. They were played an 8.5-minute piece of instrumental music – previously validated as successful at inducing sadness in participants – as the unfamiliar sadness-evoking stimulus.
The team measured the participants’ mood before and after listening to the music using the Positive and Negative Affect Schedule (PANAS). Participants were asked to provide ratings of emotions they perceived and felt during the music and whether or not the music evoked an emotional response and how strong the response was.
Participants were also presented with pictures depicting vague facial expressions and asked to rate the emotions expressed by the facial images using five slider scales of tender, sad, scary, angry, and neutral.
Results showed that unfamiliar, instrumental, sad music conjured strong emotional responses in listeners characterized by three factors of relaxing sadness, moving sadness, and nervous sadness.
Relaxing sadness was described as evoking peacefulness and positive valence, while nervous sadness related to anxiety, fear, and negative valence. Most significantly, moving sadness conveyed an intense experience that involved feelings of sadness, being moved, liking, and perceived sadness.
Relaxing sadness and moving sadness received the highest ratings, whereas the factor that most relates to negative emotional experiences, nervous sadness, received the lowest ratings.
“It may be that these kinds of strongly negative experiences that are sometimes evoked by sad music are intrinsically linked with personal memories and thus seldom experienced in the context of unfamiliar sad music,” say the authors. “The three-factor structure obtained in this study is consistent with recent studies, despite small differences in the labeling and interpretation of the different factors.”
To complement the self-reports of emotions, the team measured physiological indicators of felt emotions (electrodermal activity and heart rate variability), as well as sadness-related judgment biases in emotional evaluations.
Physiological indicators provided evidence of increased sympathetic activity during the music listening compared with the start of the study. “This suggests that listening to the unfamiliar sad music did not merely evoke relaxation, but led to increased emotional arousal,” explains Eerola and co-authors.
The facial expression picture task confirmed that participants who reported nervous sadness experienced a more negative emotional state and exhibited decreased happiness results. However, while people who had high scores of moving sadness may have experienced a sad emotional state, the experience was not defined as negative, unlike people who described nervous sadness.
Fantasy and emotional contagion were the best-predicted experiences of moving sadness, which suggests that a tendency to engage in narrative transportation and the tendency to “catch” the emotions of others contribute to the experience of moving sadness.
The researchers note that while other studies have examined how certain background variables contribute to enjoyment of sad music and the emotional responses it induces, the new study explores the background variables in more depth.
Background variables reported in previous studies such as nostalgia, proneness, and absorption were not significant indicators of emotion factors in the present study. The authors say:
“The present study advanced the understanding of the paradoxical enjoyment of music-induced sadness by discovering the main kinds of emotions experienced and by minimizing the external causes of emotions. Most importantly, the strong, enjoyable responses to sad music were associated with empathy-related traits to such degree that it was possible to diagnostically identify those who derive pleasure from sad music from those who do not.”
Future studies could address how the simulation of negative emotion, such as sadness, could lead to enjoyment in a fictional context. The study findings could lead to better-informed practices of arts-based therapy and rehabilitation,” the study concludes.