Why Are We Attracted to Sad Music?

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Why Are We Attracted to Sad Music?


In this book, perspectives in psychology, aesthetics, history and philosophy are drawn upon to survey the value given to sad music by human societies throughout history and today. Why do we love listening to music that makes us cry? This mystery has puzzled philosophers for centuries and tends to defy traditional models of emotions. Sandra Garrido presents empirical research that illuminates the psychological and contextual variables that influence our experience of sad music, its impact on our mood and mental health, and its usefulness in coping with heartbreak and grief. By means of real-life examples, this book uses applied music psychology to demonstrate the implications of recent research for the use of music in health-care and for wellbeing in everyday life.

Sad songs

Happy songs



Sadness at choral performance
Most respondents reported a pleasant and positive experience of sadness, of both high and low arousal. The sadness experienced depended, to a large extend, on the mechanism that appeared to have been involved in their emotional response. Respondents were likely to rate their experience of sadness of having been of negative, low -arousal type, such as depression of feeling downhearted, when the music triggered personal memories or thoughts. Or if the respondent was already in a low mood prior to the concert. High-arousal negative emotions such as grief and anguish were related to the triggering of visual images by the music, whereas positive high-arousal experiences of sadness of sadness that included elation and being uplifted were related to an appreciation of the musical features themselves. These results tend to indicate that it is more than the music itself that influences one’s emotional response to the music.

Sad  vs. happy song
Sad song nominations included genrer such as rock, classical, folk, electronic, jazz, and pop. Samuel Barber’s “Adagio for Strings” was among the most frequently nominated songs, along with “Danny Boy”, Jeff Buckley’s version of “Hallelujah”, and Eric Clapton’s “Tears in Heaven”. There was no significant differences in tempo (beats per minute) between the sad and happy songs. Both the sad and happy song nominations contained roughly equal numbers of slow and fast music. Even more surprising was the finding that both the ‘happy’ and ‘sad song nominations were predominantly in major keys, and that the ‘happy song category contained just as many songs in a minor key as the ‘sad song’ nominations. Some songs, such as Eva Cassidy’s version of Somewhere Over the Rainbow’, even appeared.

Song and lyrics 
The Linguistic Inquiry and Word Count software that was used showed is that the happy song category contained significantly more words in the present tense than the sad song group, suggesting that these songs tended to focus on the here and now rather than on the past or the worries about the future. It also contained more words expressing positive emotions such as “OK”, “yes” or “agree”), while the sad songs contained significantly more words expressing negative emotions, particularly anger and sadness.


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What makes a sad song to the listener?

Field study
  • A survey of audience members at a live choral performance at Chapel in Durham,UK. 
  •  Performance by William Byrd’s Mass for Five Voices  and solo performance of Bach, chiral work by Francis Pott: A Lament, and Lamento by Benjamin Britten’s Opus 72 cello suite. All songs were designed to highlight emotions of grief and conflicts. 
  • Survey was completed during the intermission.
Online survey 
    • 500 participants to name a song that made them feel sad and one that made them happy.
    •  Participants included undergraduate students and a non-student group, and ranged in age from 15 to 88 years (with a mean age of 28).
    • Linguistic Inquiry and Word Count software (LIWC; Pennebaker, 1993).





The Geneva Emotional Music Scales (GEMS).

  • Tentions
  • Sadness 
  • Nostalgia 
  • Peacefulness
  • Transcendence 
  • Tenderness
  • Wonder
  • Joy
  • Power 
Eight sadness-related adjectives.

  • Grief stricken
  • Anguished
  • Depressed
  • Downhearted
  • Sad but elated
  • Uplifted
  • Pleasantly melancholic
  • Comforted relieved   

    1. When during the performance did you reached an emotional point?
    2. Why had your chosen point produced the highest and greatest emotional response?
    3. Indicate the emotions you experienced based on the Geneva Emotional Music Scales’ (GEMS) nine emotional points.
    4. What kind of emotion of sadness do you experience based on eight sadness-related adjectives?