If sad music makes people feel bad, why do they listen to it? That is the question that was posed by Ai Kawakami and his team of researchers at Tokyo University of the Arts and RIKEN Brain Science Institute. The researchers found that when people listen to sad music, they experience more emotions than sadness.

The researchers recruited 44 volunteers, some of whom were musicians, and asked them to listen to a piece of sad music and a piece of happy music. The sad music included Glinka’s La Séparation in F minor and Blumenfeld’s Etude Sur Mer in G minor. The happy piece used by the research team was Granados’ Allegro de Concierto in G major. Because music in a major key tends to be considered happier than music in a minor key, the researchers also played the happy piece in a minor key and vice versa to control for the effect.

Participants were asked to rate their emotional state while listening and their perception of the music.

Sad music tended to make the participants feel sad but they also felt that their sadness was less deep than what they experienced from the music. The researchers supposed that if people only felt sadness from sad music, they would not listen to it. They discovered that “music that is perceived as sad actually induces romantic emotion as well as sad emotion. And people, regardless of their musical training, experience this ambivalent emotion to listen to the sad music.”

Another consideration is that the emotions evoked by sad music present no risk to the listener. While people want to avoid sadness in daily life because they do not want to be affected by it, sadness in music offers no real threat, so that may be one reason that people appreciate unpleasant emotions in music.

This study is published in the open-access journal Frontiers in Psychology.

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