DANCE, DANCE: New study explores the pleasure of sad music

Why do some of our favourite songs make us sad? It’s It’s a peculiar phenomenon most music lovers have experienced and now researchers at UNSW think they may have some insight into the age-old paradox.

In a groundbreaking study led by Professor Emery Schubert from the Empirical Musicology Laboratory, School of the Arts & Media at UNSW Arts, Design & Architecture, a fascinating theory has emerged. Published in the prestigious journal PLOS ONE, the research suggests that contrary to conventional wisdom, the experience of sadness when listening to music may actually enhance our enjoyment.

The research was conducted with 50 participants who were invited to select a piece of music that resonated with their inner melancholy. From the timeless compositions of Beethoven to the contemporary hits of Taylor Swift, the selection spanned generations and genres. Remarkably, these individuals were not directed to choose music that induced sadness; rather, they were asked to select tunes they genuinely loved.

Upon selecting their chosen tunes, participants were prompted to imagine the removal of their sadness while listening to the music—a mental exercise akin to lifting the veil of melancholy. Surprisingly, an overwhelming 82% reported a reduction in their enjoyment when the sadness was hypothetically removed.

“The findings suggest that sadness felt when listening to music might actually be liked and can enhance the pleasure of listening to it,” Prof. Schubert said.

“We know that many people are quite apt when it comes to thought experiments, so it’s a reasonable approach to use and, at worst, it should produce no results.

“One explanation relates to play. Experiencing a wide range of emotions in a more or less safe environment could help us learn how to deal with what we encounter in the world.”

The study also delved into the intertwined nature of sadness and what people describe as being moved, a complex emotional state characterized by both positive and negative elements.

Previous research had proposed the existence of an ‘indirect effect hypothesis,’ wherein individuals derive pleasure not from sadness per se but from the broader emotional experience of being moved. However, Professor Schubert’s findings suggest a more nuanced relationship where sadness triggers being moved, and being moved, in turn, triggers sadness.

So, the next time you find yourself immersed in a melancholic melody, remember—it’s not just sadness; it’s the symphony of human experience unfolding before your ears. Or something like that.