Music: Why Sad Music?

Japanese researchers published in the journal Frontiers in Psychology that listening to sad music might evoke positive emotions. Those of you that know me know I am always reading and quoting studies. There is a part of me that loves trying to understand human behavior. That said, I found these findings and additional thoughts expressed by musician Gillian Welch to be interesting and revealing.

Science Daily quotes the study as saying “Emotion experienced by music has no direct danger or harm unlike the emotion experienced in everyday life. Therefore, we can even enjoy unpleasant emotion such as sadness.” These results are in line with the tradition of tragedy in music. Actually, the tradition of tragedy in art and entertainment goes all the way back to Greek tragedy in the 5th century BC. So, perhaps a study was not really necessary to prove that humans enjoy experiencing sadness expressed outside of themselves.

Gillian Welch says “music used to be the be-all and end-all of entertainment and art, for the populace, back before TV and movies.” It’s easy to forget that entertainment by TV in the U.S. has only been around for about 85 years and movies about 100 years. That seems like a long time. However, recent findings indicate early modern humans could have spent their evenings sitting around the fire, playing bone flutes and singing songs 40,000 years ago!

In the article, “Gillian Welch: People make art to deal with the gnarliest, most painful events”, she goes on to outline how sadness in music is a coping mechanism and means of expression for life experiences that are incredibly hard to deal with. It not only eases the suffering of the singer or songwriter, but of the listener, too.

She says, “These tragic songs serve several purposes. They let us know that these things happen to people – and if they haven’t happened to you, they could. And they tell you, you need to have compassion.”

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