My background is originally in music, but for the last 5 years or so, I have been focused on psychology. Lately, I’ve been getting music work from old friends who’ve asked me to write demos, soundtracks, and songs. Revisiting musical work with my newly acquired positive psychology mindset has made me wonder again about why we humans love music so much.
Music and SadnessThe P in Seligman’s theory of PERMA stands for positive emotion. It’s something that we are motivated to experience in and of itself.
However, one particular question came up for me as I perused my music collection. Much of what I enjoyed and appreciated listening to was actually in a minor key, often in a key intended to induce sadness.
Why would I gravitate toward experiencing a negative emotion such as sadness? On top of this, much of the music that I write is in a minor key and generally explores the depth of an emotion. Getting back into writing music has reminded me how differently I feel after a day filled with such emotional work. For lack of a more scientific term, I call it feeling grounded.
Exploring the Connection Between Music and Emotion
In a 2009 experiment performed at McGill University, researchers asked the question: what exactly is rewarding about listening to music? Participants brought in music that they found consistently pleasurable, defined by giving them chills each time they listened to it. They also listened to excerpts from other participants’ music (as a neutral control). The music ranged in genre from Beethoven to Pink Floyd. The research team captured a battery of physiological measures in real-time as well as the participant’s subjective rating of how pleasurable they found the music. Participants also rated what they thought the excerpts of music were intended to elicit.Intensity Trumps Valence
The researchers found that the valence of the music (whether listeners perceived the music as happy or sad) had no bearing on how pleasurable the listeners found the music. What seemed to matter was whether the participant experienced emotional arousal of some sort.
The experimenters clarified that not all highly aroused emotional states are pleasurable. Musical excerpts arousing unpleasant feelings, such as anxiety or fear, were omitted. Unfortunately, the authors did not include much detail on the emotions that the music did appear to elicit aside from sadness.
One theory is that music and art cause “shadow emotions”, a term often used for experiences that are separate from true emotions and occur in places perceived to be safe. It may be that this type of pleasure experience combined with emotional arousal is specific to music or art. But I think it points out that we still have a long way to go to understand the complexity of human emotion.Still Wondering
Ultimately, the article’s primary conclusion was that there is clearly a relationship between pleasure and emotional arousal. This leaves me with several questions:
- Could there be something beneficial in experiencing these sweet and sour interventions?
- Is there something useful in feeling strong emotions in general?
- Are people getting enough opportunity to experience emotional arousal during their days?
Salimpoor, V. N., Benevoy, M., Longo, G., Cooperstock, J. R. & Zatorre, R. J. (2009). The Rewarding Aspects of Music Listening Are Related to Degree of Emotional Arousal. PLoS ONE 4(10): e7487. doi:10.1371/journal.pone.0007487.
Music score courtesy of Luz Adriana Villa
Violinist from Parkpop 2009 (Sad Music) courtesy of Haags Uitboro
Making music courtesy of Sir_Leif
I love your article, Genevieve, and agree with you completely. I believe that music, and many of the arts,
by “fooling” our unconscious censor, enables us to access the deepest parts of what I would call our “essential self”, those emotions and feelings we often keep out of our awareness as we go about living our day-to-day lives. This includes things we love and cherish deeply, our fears, values, etc. Getting in touch with these, and feeling and expressing the associated emotions, feels good because it is part of our humanity but something we often don’t allow ourselves the luxury of expressing. I believe it is very healthy, and, in fact, in healthcare, we often use music and art as therapeutic modalities. As a medical doctor, singing in both professional and amateur groups throughout my career has provided a necessary and ideal spiritual and emotional balance.
Very interesting insight about intensity and valence.
I wonder whether the link of minor tonality with sadness is something that people in the “Western” musical tradition learn or whether it is common to all musical traditions. Admittedly I have limited knowledge of other traditions, but I suspect it’s the former.
One thing for sure about music that includes minor tonality is that is has more scope for variety; it can play with raised and lowered notes in the natural, the harmonic and the melodic minor scales, adding lots of different tonal colours and possible directions to take the musical narrative.
Thank you for an intriguing and I suspect seminal article. I particularly enjoy work which ends with skillful questions.
Would you and colleagues consider working in a multi-center research partnership to look at how to address these?
We’re about to open up an arts-based retreat and research center near Bristol airport (UK) with a focus on evidence-based approaches to music practice for personal or community recovery and development.
It’s particularly fortunate that Bristol has arguably the highest concentration of professional musicians in the UK, together with a concentration of arts+health organisations.
Perhaps others in the PPND network may also be interested – again perhaps linking in with our local Happy City and Lightbox happiness projects?
I would love to hear more information about your project. I work with an arts organization that is bringing live instumental and vocal music concerts and education to elementary and middle school children from depressed neighborhoods whose schools are lacking in arts education.
Music, like emotions, are cathartic and even when we experience sadness, there is a positivity and strength once we have moved through the emotion onto the other side. We learn things about ourselves when we allow the experience to take place. This is much like a song, by the end we have completed that experience and appreciate the feeling and impact it had which can explain why even a sad song can still result in a positive euphoric feeling. Such a wonderful way to experience them in a safe environment! Great food for thought-PsychedinSF
Music has soothed the souls of human beings for ages. It also has helped people recover from ailments since ancient times. Today, there is a widespread interest in the use of music therapy in treating psychiatric disorders.
Today I re-read these posts and thought about the music that I most associate with happiness and flourishing as opposed to sadness. It occurred to me that the music associated with sadness, in addition to being in a minor key, tends to be far more complex. It can vary from pp to fff, involve a depth and variety of instrumentation, and explore a web of tonality that represents a broad spectrum of feelings. On the other hand, music associated with happiness tends to be a faster tempo, in higher tonal registers, and quite a bit less varied. I wonder if that has to do with our lack of knowledge, experience and insight into the emotion of happiness and flourishing. Perhaps if we understood wellbeing more fully, our music about wellbeing would be more complex, beautiful and varied.
Why do Minor Keys sound sad?
If you want to answer the question, why minor chords sound sad, there is the problem, that some minor chords don’t sound sad. The solution is the Theory of Musical Equilibration. It says, that music is not able to transmit emotions directly. Music can just convey processes of will, but the music listener fills this processes of will with emotions. Similar, when you watch a dramatic movie in television, the movie cannot transmit emotions directly, but processes of will. The spectator perceives the processes of will dyed with emotions – identifying with the protagonist. When you listen music you identify too, but with an anonymous will now.
If you perceive a major chord, you normally identify with the will “Yes, I want to…”. If you perceive a minor chord, you identify normally with the will “I don’t want any more…”. If you play the minor chord softly, you connect the will “I don’t want any more…” with a feeling of sadness. If you play the minor chord loudly, you connect the same will with a feeling of rage. You distinguish in the same way as you would distinguish, if someone would say the words “I don’t want anymore…” the first time softly and the second time loudly.
This operations of will in the music were unknown until the Theory of Musical Equilibration discovered them. And therefore many previous researches in psychology of music failed. If you want more information about music and emotions and get the answer, why music touches us emotionally, you can download the essay “Music and Emotions – Research on the Theory of Musical Equilibration” for free. You can get it on the link: