If sadness is an unpleasant emotion, then why are we at times so drawn to sad music? By Dan Ruderman

In a recent study Liila Taruffi and Stefan Koelsch from the Free University of Berlin used an online survey to better understand why people engage with sad music and the emotions they experience when doing so.

Their web-based survey of 76 questions was answered by 772 participants (64% female, mean age 28 years, mostly raised in Europe, Asia, and North America).  The questions sought people's frequency of listening to sad music and the emotions evoked when doing so.  Additionally, the characteristics of participants were assessed in terms of empathy and other personality traits.

What rewards do we get from listening to sad music? The study found four general classes of rewards in the responses: imagination, emotion regulation, empathy, and no "real-life" implications of the sadness, which the participants deemed most important. The authors state that: "…music-evoked sadness is often not immediately linked to a sad extra-musical event, thus allowing the listener to take pleasure in so-called negative emotions." A 2013 New York Times article called such music-evoked sadness a "vicarious emotion" and deemed such effects an important area for further study, adding:

When we weep at the beauty of sad music, we experience a profound aspect of our emotional selves that may contain insights about the meaning and significance of artistic experience — and also about ourselves as human beings.

When do people listen to sad music? Participants reported listening to sad music most often when experiencing emotional distress.  This is defined as a negative emotional state, for example due to the end of a close personal relationship. It is believed that sad music can enhance mood and provide consolation under these circumstances.

Frequency of emotions evoked by listening to sad music. From Taruffi, L., & Koelsch, S. (2014). The Paradox of Music-Evoked Sadness: An Online Survey. PloS One, 9(10).

Frequency of emotions evoked by listening to sad music. From Taruffi, L., & Koelsch, S. (2014), The Paradox of Music-Evoked Sadness: An Online Survey, PloS One, 9(10).

What are people's emotional responses to sad music? From a list of nine emotions commonly employed in psychological studies (see figure), participants were asked to supply those experienced when listening to sad music. Interestingly, sadness (selected by 45% of responders) was not at the top of the list. Instead, it was nostalgia (76%). The authors suggest that in the absence of a distressing real-life context, listeners can actually enjoy music-evoked sadness because it allows them to better understand its emotional aspects without experiencing the negative consequences. Indeed, listeners reported frequent positive emotions in response to sad music, such as peacefulness, tenderness, and wonder.

What kinds of personalities like sad music? The researchers found that the personality trait of empathy significantly correlates with liking sad music, as had been noted by other researchers. They additionally found that emotional stability is negatively correlated with enjoying sad music when the listener is sad. That is, emotionally stable listeners tend not to turn to sad music when they are experiencing sadness, and they likely regulate their mood during sadness by listening to happier music.

The authors additionally conclude that there are several implications of their results for music therapy, including the possible beneficial effect of sad music for regulating emotion in less stable individuals.