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Scientists Discover Why We Listen to Sad Music

Update Date: Jul 11, 2013 05:13 PM EDT

If sad music will just make us depressed, why do we listen to it?

Japanese scientists found that sad music actually triggers positive emotions, according to a new study published in the journal Frontiers in Psychology.

Researchers from Tokyo University of the Arts and the RIKEN Brain Science Institute in Japan say the findings may help explain why people enjoy listening to sad music.

Lead researcher Ai Kawakami and researchers asked 44 people, including both musicians and non-musicians, to listen to two pieces of sad music and one piece of happy music.  In the study, each volunteer was required to use a set of keywords to rate both their perception of the music and their own emotional state.

The sad songs in the study included Glinka's "La Séparation" in F minor and Blumenfeld's Etude "Sur Mer" in G minor. The happy music piece was Granados's Allegro de Concierto in G major. To control for the "happy" effect of major key, they also played the minor-key pieces in major key, and vice versa.

The study revealed that sad music evoked contradictory emotions because the participants tended to feel sad music to be more tragic, less romantic and less blithe than they felt themselves while listening to it.

"In general, sad music induces sadness in listeners, and sadness is regarded as an unpleasant emotion. If sad music actually evokes only unpleasant emotion, we would not listen to it," researchers wrote in the study.

"Music that is perceived as sad actually induces romantic emotion as well as sad emotion. And people, regardless of their musical training, experience this ambivalent emotion to listen to the sad music," they added.

Researchers said that unlike sadness in daily life, sadness experienced through art actually feels pleasant.  This may be because the latter doesn't pose an actually threat to our safety.  Researchers the findings could help people deal with their negative emotions in daily life.

"Emotion experienced by music has no direct danger or harm unlike the emotion experienced in everyday life. Therefore, we can even enjoy unpleasant emotion such as sadness. If we suffer from unpleasant emotion evoked through daily life, sad music might be helpful to alleviate negative emotion," they concluded.

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