The Science of Sad Sounds

by Bev Foster

Part 3 - Special Series on Music and the Brain Do you ever wonder why we may like to listen to sad music? Why do people create sad song playlists on their ipods? We often listen to music that either matches our mood or that will help change our mood. But sadness is normally an emotion we don’t want to feel and we try to avoid. So why would anyone want to listen to sad music? Dr. David Huron, Distinguished Professor of Arts and Humanities at the Centre for Cognitive Science at Ohio State University is a leading expert on music and emotions. In his Cognitive and Systematic Musicology Lab, he and his colleagues take a scientific approach in studying music and have taken on trying to answer this question. You can view Dr. Huron and his full explanation on this YouTube.

In sum, here are Dr. Huron’s findings.

  • Listening to sad music seemed to depend on a person’s personality. Those who were more likely to listen to sad music displayed openness to new experiences as well as scored high on the neurotic scale.
  • The hormone, prolactin is released when a person is in a sad state and has a consoling or warming effect.
  • Listening to sad music, although not a grief-worthy event like the death of a pet or break up of a relationship, puts the brain into a state of sadness where prolactin is released and the consoling effect takes place. He calls this sham grief. Sham grief means you can have a good cry with the benefits of the normal prolactin release without having to experience loss or tragedy.

Whether it is because I am open to new experiences or score high on the neurotic scale, I enjoy listening to and playing sad music, not all the time, but often enough. One of my favourites is the Air from Grieg’s Holberg Suite. It can bring me to tears. I also love sad movie theme songs like Schindler’s List or The Thornbirds. And after difficult experiences, I will often express my grief by writing a song, either instrumental or with lyrics. Music is a way to release emotions that may or may not be attached to real loss. No question sad music helps me have a pretty safe cry.