Sad music can be some of the most beautiful in the world. And researchers are discovering why melancholy music has such a powerful effect on us.
In my next class, March 26, we will listen to music of the gravest beauty: The consoling serenity of "In Paradisum" from Gabriel Faure's Requiem; the rising heartbreak of the Allegretto from Beethoven's Seventh Symphony; the nostalgia of the simple American folksong, "Long Time Ago" and the noble power of "Nimrod" from Edward Elgar's "Enigma Variations." Plus works by Bach, Schubert, Mahler and Gorecki.
Some scientists think melancholy music is linked to the hormone prolactin, a chemical that helps curb grief. The body prepares itself to adapt to a traumatic event, but when that event doesn't occur, the brain is left with a pleasurable mix of opiates with nowhere to go.
We like to listen to sad music because it can amplify the feelings of sorrow and loss, says Tuomas Eerola, professor of music cognition at Durham University. These experiences often aren’t pleasurable, but reflecting on them can be therapeutic, he says in a story on Lifehacker. Melancholy, often thought of as a negative feeling, can actually enrich creativity.
People who listen to sad music may simply enjoy “being moved.” I know I am one of those people. I bet you are, too. In a recent study led by Eerola, published in Frontiers of Psychology, many participants who listened to sad-sounding music described feeling “intense, pleasurable, and yet sad emotions” all at once.
"Additionally, the same participants showed high levels of “empathic concern,” or the ability to empathize with someone’s perceived emotion while also feeling tenderness, compassion, and sympathy for them," writes Patrick Allan. "Basically, if you’re a highly empathetic person, there’s a good chance you feel a whirlwind of emotions when you listen to sad music -- and you probably find it enjoyable overall."
"Empathy is one of the most important skills you can develop because it can strengthen your relationships and make you a happier, more gracious person."
Come find out more, as we listen to these and other examples of powerfully beautiful music.
David Stabler is a pianist, writer, dad and cyclist. He's working on a novel based on his childhood years living in Africa and rode across America with his brother in 2017.