Tuomas Eerola from the Independent
Intuitively, it makes sense that those who easily feel empathy are also easily moved
Tear-jerkers such as Adele’s “Someone Like You” frequently top the charts these days, while gloomy classical compositions likeMozart’s “Requiem” have moved people for centuries. Both portray and bring about a strong sense of loss and sadness. But our enjoyment of sad music is paradoxical – we go out of our way to avoid sadness in our daily lives. So why is it that, in the arts, themes such as loss can be safely experienced, profoundly enjoyed and even celebrated?
Researchers have long been puzzled about this phenomenon and it’s not until fairly recently that we have started to gain some insight into how we enjoy music. Now, a new study by colleagues and me, published in Frontiers in Psychology, has discovered why some of us enjoy sad music more than others – and it’s got a lot to do with empathy.
Research has already shown that open individuals typically score highly on musical sophistication, while “systemisers”, those with a strong interest in patterns, systems and rules, tend to prefer intense music such as rock and punk.
But what about sad music? Surely nobody would like it unless the emotion experienced is not actual sadness but some kind of transformed version of it? Based on large surveys of what people experience while listening to sad music, we know that these experiences typically fall into different categories.
For some, sad music actually deepens and amplifies the feelings ofsorrow and loss – emotions that are connected to personal events and memories. These experiences are far from pleasurable and therefore do not offer an explanation for the paradox. For others, sad music brings about feelings of melancholia, the kind of sentiment you might have on a rainy day after your favourite team lost.
The mystery of being moved
The most curious type of experience, however, is the feeling of being moved, which we think is the basis of our fascination with sad music. This experience can be difficult to describe verbally, but it is often intense and pleasurable. However, not everyoneseems to be able to experience it. So who would? Intuitively, it would make sense that those who easily feel empathy are also easily moved.
To test this hypothesis, we recruited a nationally representative sample of 102 participants to a listening experiment. We played them a piece of instrumental sad music, Discovery of the Camp by Michael Kamen, which was briefly played in the drama miniseriesBand of Brothers. In an initial pilot study, the vast majority of people couldn’t recognise it.
Our decision to focus on instrumental music that participants would be unlikely to have heard previously was to rule out any external sources of emotions, such as specific memories they might have for a particular piece of music or interpretations of the lyrics. In other words, we wanted to be sure that the participants’ emotional responses would be brought about by the music itself.
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