Why do we get pleasure from sad music?


Sadness is a negative emotion; and, we recognize sadness in some music; but yet, we often enjoy listening to sad music. We can be positive about a negative emotion. A recent paper by Kawakami (citation below) differentiates between some hypotheses to explain this contradiction.

The hypotheses that the response has to do with musical training (ie that the pleasure comes from the appreciation and familiarity with the art involved) was shown false by finding no difference in response between musicians and non-musicians in their experiments. “Participants’ emotional responses were not associated with musical training. Music that was perceived as tragic evoked fewer sad and more romantic notions in both musicians and non-musicians. Therefore, our hypothesis—when participants listened to sad (i.e., minor-key) music, those with more musical experience (relative to those with less experience) would feel (subjectively experience) more pleasant emotions than they would perceive (objectively hear in the music)—was not supported.

The key innovation in this experimental setup was that the subjects were not just asked how sad they found the music but were given an extensive quiz. For each of 2 pieces of music, played in both minor and major keys, the subjects rated the experience in terms of 62 words and phrases, rating both their perception of the music’s emotional message and the personal emotion they actually felt. Four factors were extracted from the 62 emotional descriptions: tragic emotion, heightened emotion, romantic emotion, blithe emotion.

As would be expected the tragic emotion was rated higher for the minor key and lower for the major key music for both perceived and felt emotion. Likewise, there is no surprise that the blithe emotion was the opposite, high for the major and low for the minor for both felt and perceived emotion. The heightened emotion was only slightly higher for the sad minor music over the happy major. Romantic emotion was moderately higher for the happy music over the sad. However, there were differences between felt and perceived emotion. These were significant for the minor music: it was felt to be less tragic, more romantic and more blithe than it was perceived. This difference between felt and perceived is not too difficult to imagine. Suppose you are arguing with someone and you make them very angry. You can perceive their anger while your own feelings may be of smug satisfaction. Although emotion can be very contagious, it is not a given that felt emotion will be identical to perceived emotion.

The hypothesis of catharsis would imply a deeply felt sadness to lift depression. But this is not what was seen. The next hypothesis the authors discuss is ‘sweet anticipation’. A listener has certain expectations of what will be heard next and a positive emotion is felt when the prediction is fulfilled. This could contribute to the effect (but not because of musical training).

A third hypothesis is that we have an art-experience-mode in which we have positive emotions from exposure to art. If we believe we are in the presence of ‘art’ that in itself is positive. “When we listen to music, being in a listening situation is obvious to us; therefore, how emotion is evoked would be influenced by our cognitive appraisal of listening to music. For example, a cognitive appraisal of listening to sad music as engagement with art would promote positive emotion, regardless of whether that music evoked feelings of unpleasant sadness, thereby provoking the experience of ambivalent emotions in response to sad music. ” Again this could contribute.

Their new and favourite hypothesis is ‘vicarious emotion’. “In sum, we consider emotion experienced in response to music to be qualitatively different from emotion experienced in daily life; some earlier studies also proposed that music may evoke music-specific emotions. The difference between the emotions evoked in daily life and music-induced emotions is the degree of directness attached to emotion-evoking stimuli. Emotion experienced in daily life is direct in nature because the stimuli that evoke the emotion could be threatening. However, music is a safe stimulus with no relationship to actual threat; therefore, emotion experienced through music is not direct in nature. The latter emotion is experienced via an essentially safe activity such as listening to music. We call this type of emotion

vicarious emotion.” … That is, even if the music evokes a negative emotion, listeners are not faced with any real threat; therefore, the sadness that listeners feel has a pleasant, rather than an unpleasant, quality to it. This suggests that sadness is multifaceted, whereas it has previously been regarded as a solely unpleasant emotion. ”

I find the notion of vicarious emotion could also explain why we can be entertained and enjoy frightening plays, books and movies. All sorts of negative emotions are sought as vicarious experiences and enjoyed. Many things we do for leisure and our enjoyment of much of art have a good deal of vicarious emotional content for us to safely enjoy and even learn from.


Kawakami, A., Furukawa, K., & Okanoya, K. (2014). Music evokes vicarious emotions in listeners Frontiers in Psychology, 5 DOI: 10.3389/fpsyg.2014.00431

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